Superstar Honeysuckle out to cap perfect season with another Grade 1 masterclass
Paddy Power Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) | 2m | 4yo+ | RTE2/RTV
It's not impossible this could be the last time we see Honeysuckle over hurdles, with connections set to decide over the summer whether she could embark on a chasing campaign next season.
Maintaining the supremely talented mare's perfect racing record will be at the forefront of her team's minds come 5.25pm on Friday evening, though, with another championship assignment to deal with on her first start at the Punchestown festival.
Peter Molony, racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander, said: "She hasn't been too busy this season so we hope she's still fresh enough for this. Henry [de Bromhead] has had her spot on for every day she's gone to the races so far, so hopefully it'll be the same again."
He added: "Kenny, Henry and myself will have a sit down at some stage during the summer, Covid permitting, and we'll have a chat about plans. No decision has been made yet and we'll have a think about it then."
De Bromhead has been pleased by the 165-rated performer in the 45 days since her devastating performance against the geldings in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The Sulamani mare will be aiming to follow up with her 7lb mares' allowance, just as high-class mare Vroum Vroum Mag did in 2016 after winning the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham a month earlier.
"She's been really good since Cheltenham," said De Bromhead, who has been having one of the most remarkable springs in the history of jump racing. "We've just kept her ticking along since then. We're looking forward to seeing how she gets on again."
De Bromhead has every chance of taking home a fair share of the €250,000 on offer as he also saddles very capable performers Aspire Tower and Jason The Militant.
Aspire Tower has 11 lengths to find with Honeysuckle on Cheltenham form but remains open to improvement as a five-year-old.
"Aspire Tower ran really well in the Champion Hurdle and he seems to be in good form," said De Bromhead. "We haven't made any decision on him for next season but I'd imagine he might stay over hurdles, we'll see."
Jason The Militant, set to be ridden by Darragh O'Keeffe for the first time, parted ways with Rachael Blackmore in the Aintree Hurdle three weeks ago, and De Bromhead added: "He seems to be in good shape since then too."
Epatante and Goshen chase £100,000 bonus
Paddy Power took over the sponsorship of this race this year and introduced a £100,000 incentive to any British-trained winner following Ireland's domination at the Cheltenham Festival.
Epatante and Goshen are the sole contenders taking up the challenge. Nicky Henderson and JP McManus successfully combined to land the Grade 1 when it was last run in 2019 with Buveur D'Air and Henderson has been pleased by Epatante since her third to Honeysuckle at Cheltenham.
It will be the first time Epatante has had more than three runs in a season, with the last campaign halted by Covid-19 soon after her Champion Hurdle heroics.
"She's in good form, she's gone very well since Cheltenham and she'll love the ground," said Henderson, who will be having just one runner at Punchestown this week. "She's still got Honeysuckle in the way but we'll try and give her a race this time."
Gary Moore suggested Goshen had visited Cheltenham for the last time after hanging badly to the right all the way down the back straight when tailing off behind Honeysuckle at the festival, where he was sent off an 11-2 chance for the Champion Hurdle on the back of a 22-length victory in the Kingwell at Wincanton.
Moore is hoping Goshen can return to his best back on a right-handed track. He said: "I'm delighted with him. It's the first time he's been away from home overnight and he seems to have travelled really well, although we won't really know until the race.
"There's little else for him at the moment and there would have been no point going to Auteuil as that's left-handed. This was the obvious option."
O'Leary: best to come from Abacadabras
Gigginstown's Eddie O'Leary is under no illusions about the task facing Aintree Hurdle winner Abacadabras but he believes there could be more to come from the seven-year-old, who landed the Morgiana Hurdle over this course and distance in November.
"I don't think we have seen the best of Abacadabras yet," he said of the 158-rated hurdler, trained by Denise Foster. "We have the height of respect for Honeysuckle but, on nice ground, she could set the race up for us if we're good enough, and that's a big 'if'. We'll find out if we're good enough to lay a glove on her here."
He added: "Abacadabras scoped rotten at Christmas, the ground was against him at the Dublin Racing Festival, he fell at Cheltenham but at least he showed what he was capable of at Aintree. I'm not saying we'll beat Honeysuckle but on decent spring ground we would certainly be hopeful of letting her know we're there."
What the rest say
Gavin Cromwell, trainer of Darver Star
He hasn't been jumping as well as he can in his last couple of starts over fences and we just thought we'd take a chance on sending him back over hurdles.
Willie Mullins, trainer of Sharjah
He was second to Honeysuckle in the Cheltenham equivalent and it's hard to see him turning the form around. It would be great if he finishes second again.
Read more on day four at Punchestown: