Honeysuckle © Photo Healy Racing
Honeysuckle could have her Cheltenham Festival swansong in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle — with owner Kenny Alexander steering away from the Unibet Champion Hurdle after the mare suffered a second career defeat at Leopardstown on Sunday.
The nine-year-old was eclipsed for the first time in 17 races when only third in the Hatton’s Grace in December and found herself having to be content with place honours again under Rachael Blackmore, as State Man galloped home a clear winner of the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
While both trainer Henry de Bromhead and Alexander were satisfied with their superstar’s effort, they conceded the long-awaited clash with Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle now looks unlikely, with the Mares’ Hurdle prize Honeysuckle won in 2020 seemingly now the only option — although even that is not a given at this stage with retirement also in the mix.
Alexander said: “Age catches up with us all — one of the young pretenders has overtaken her and there’s one in England.
“Is she as good as she was? No, she’s not as good as she was. I wouldn’t overreact after her first run, she’s still very, very high class but she’s not quite as good as she was. She is nine now and she ran her heart out, she ran a blinder.
“We will definitely not be taking on Constitution Hill after that, because she is so brave and I would fear what would happen. We’re not running around for place money so it’s up to Henry, if he wants to chuck it now. I’ve always said ‘just get her out now, safe and sound’ and maybe the time has come.
“I know the horse is so brave and Rachael doesn’t muck about, we’d run to win and I’d dread anything happening to her now and I don’t think we can beat Constitution Hill — I’m not sure anything can.
“I thought she ran a blinder, but I’ll leave it to Henry and Rachael, whatever they say will go. I’d love to win another Mares’ and go out in a blaze of glory, but I don’t want anything to happen to her now.”
Honeysuckle, who had won the Irish Champion Hurdle three times previously, was applauded around the parade ring before the race and cheered all the way back to the unsaddling enclosure after the race.
Alexander admitted the reception meant a lot and was philosophical in defeat as the racing journey with his “horse of a lifetime” nears an end.
He said: “You do feel a bit of responsibility not to go to the well too many times, but I will leave it to Henry and Rachael. If they want to go for the Mares’ I’d love to win one more, but I’m not going to make any decision, I will leave it to them.
“We have won so many Grade Ones, she’s the horse of a lifetime — I’m not gutted, why would I be gutted? Gutted is when you get chinned in a bumper with something you spent a lot of money on, I feel gutted then, I don’t feel it today.
“She ran her heart out, got beat by a very good horse, a younger horse and I’m not gutted at all. It’s just a race, we go on.”
De Bromhead felt Honeysuckle had perhaps posted her best performance yet in the Leopardstown heat, even in defeat.
He told Racing TV: “I thought she ran really well, I’m delighted with the run and fair play to the winner. He won it well and that was it.
“I’d say she’s probably run to a higher standard (this year) possibly, I don’t know. The form people and all the gurus will work that out, but I thought she ran really well and we were happy with her.
“We know all about her, we don’t have to say anything about her courage and her attitude. She was brilliant all the way to the line.”
While initially unsure of future plans, De Bromhead later indicated the Mares’ Hurdle could be the best assignment, although he underlined plans were far from definite.
Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “I don’t think now is the time to be making any decisions. It’s not up to me, but I wouldn’t be running her in the Champion Hurdle, if we were to run again I’d run in the Mares’ Hurdle. I wouldn’t like to force it.”
Coral pushed Honeysuckle out to 8-1 for the Champion Hurdle, but go 7-2 about her for the Mares’ Hurdle.