Brian O'Connor

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A Little Fizzy

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore winning the Baroneracing Hatton s Grace Hurdle on Sunday
© Photo Healy Racing

The connections of Honeysuckle and Envoi Allen can bask in the Grade One glory achieved at Fairyhouse for a little while longer before looking forward to a winter of incessant speculation about the Champion Hurdle. Both the unbeaten mare and the unbeaten novice are as low as 8-1 for hurdling's championship at Cheltenham in March. That's despite it being far from the first-choice festival option for either. Plenty are already arguing it should be.

Of course it's always easy to be brave with someone else's horse. There's also the professional view that any festival success is great and it's only common sense to opt for the easiest option. All these arguments got a thorough airing last winter when the world and its mother lobbied for Apple's Jade to line up for the Champion Hurdle. That didn't work out too great.

But with a Champion Hurdle picture sadly shorn of its reigning title-holder, and the former duel-winner Buveur D'air's potentially out for the season after a nasty weekend injury, there appears to be a vacuum which many fans would like to see filled by these new five year old stars. That represents a substantial risk. The question ultimately revolves around it being a risk worth taking.

One can see why discretion might be prudent with Envoi Allen. This is still a big, raw specimen whose ultimate future, most everyone accepts, is over fences. Despite that, his bumper career and two starts over flights suggest a rare and versatile talent. His jumping in particular was notably slick in the Royal Bond. But jumping against seasoned senior opposition is a different ball-game and there must be a fear that a bad experience might compromise Envoi Allen's long-term future.

Honeysuckle is the same age and has had the same number of races in her short career. She also has plenty to prove, such as can she be as effective going left-handed as she was in her resounding Hatton's Grace success on Sunday? Crucially though this is her second season jumping. She also looks more of the finished article than Envoi Allen.

Right now Honeysuckle is a very worthy favourite for the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham. It's at the two and a half miles that all bar one of her races has been over and as of now her only serious opponent shapes as being Benie Des Dieux. In terms of the best chance of winning at the festival, Henry De Bromhead is correct in saying the Mares is the logical option.

But the fact that option is there at all, and as a Grade One, only backs up the view that such a range of races threatens to dilute championship events such as the Champion Hurdle and ultimately undermine their significance at what is designed to be a title-deciding festival.

As things stand if one of a group of good but hardly remarkable contenders such as Saldier or Fussil Raffles wins the Champion Hurdle, questions will be left hanging should Honeysuckle emerge 40 minutes later and win the Mares in a canter. That's hardly a satisfactory state of affairs and it's a consequence of there being too much choice.

On to other news and at the start of the year the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board announced there would be a five year starting point penalty for any rider failing a drugs test. The move came on the back of a spate of positive results - 13 in almost four years including five in 2018 alone - for cocaine. It was designed to be a deterrent. It doesn't seem to have worked.

On Friday two more riders, flat jockey David Simmonson and amateur Cian Cullinan, were suspended for two and four years respectively after returning positive results for cocaine earlier this year. Simmonson also tested positive for cannabis. Both, however, can reapply for their licences within a year subject to certain conditions.

There is a view that such a clause undermines the deterrent impact of that headline grabbing five year starting point, making the risk of getting caught less of a gamble for riders who might be tempted to take illegal drugs. From another point of view however the prospect of rehabilitation being rewarded by leniency rather than a potentially career-ending ban makes sense.

The IHRB plans to step up its testing regime even more in 2020. In 2018 it carried out 254 tests. This year, to date, there have been 331 tests - 268 on the racecourse and 63 in point to points. The seriousness of the issue even produced a first at Gowran nine days ago when all jockeys present were drug tested.

The desirability of such unannounced testing becoming more regular is obvious although it's curious how there seems to be little difficulty organising random, unannounced drug testing of racing's human population but managing to do the same with horses is a political minefield!

When it comes to people who indulge in recreational substances however there's a lot of evidence to suggest deterrents are of little use. Too often severe declarations of intent work only as gesture politics that makes officialdom feel better about being seen to do something. The reality is that people will always be tempted to get a little fizzy now and again.

The nature of being a jockey makes that impulse a lot more complicated. That needs to be stressed to young riders in particular. That in turn means the seminars that were introduced last year need to continue so that at least no one can turn around and claim ignorance. It's an old tune to whistle but education does look the best long-term deterrent.

It was busy at IHRB headquarters on Friday when Co. Meath trainer David Dunne wound up fined €2,000 after his charge Druim Samhraidh tested positive for the anabolic steroid Boldonone after winning at Ballinrobe in August. The horse was disqualified and got a 14 month suspension from racing.

An official statement hasn't been released yet outlining details of the case although it appears Dunne was largely exonerated with a spokesman commenting: "The panel heard that the scientific evidence suggests the horse was first exposed to the substance prior to coming into David Dunne's yard."

That rather begs questions to be asked as to where the animal was exposed to Boldonone and who was responsible. For credibility's sake, detailed answers to such queries need to be released rather than some brief blurry statement of the obvious.

Finally, Horse Racing Ireland gets in the neck sometimes but credit is due from headline writers everywhere after appointing the man who launched the Belfast Titanic to steer the future of Leopardstown racecourse. To be fair there are courses with icier prospects than Dublin's only track.

Tim Husbands is a left-field choice to succeed Pat Keogh as he has no experience within racing. That's a positive step in one sense because it allows an energetic outsider's eye to be cast over practises that have become enshrined in tradition. The downside is that unfamiliarity with those same mores can leave a newcomer very vulnerable.

The appointment of a new face in Derek McGrath as CEO of the Curragh was widely welcomed in 2016. Three years later and neither he or those on the board of racing's HQ shed too many tears when they parted. McGrath didn't help himself at times. On other occasions though he stepped on toes that might have deserved stepping but which were politically very sensitive indeed.

Husbands could find that navigating his way through virtual ice-fields in the Belfast Titanic Centre is a doddle compared to slaloming around racing's political minefield.

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