It’s that time of year when all of a sudden the championship races are upon us! On 1 February we have the Irish Champion Hurdle. A race won by the majestic Apples Jade last year became the first mare to win for 16 years when she demolished a high class field including 2018 winner Supasundae and Petit Mouchoir the 2017 winner.
Before 2017 we saw the Willie Mullins dominance from 2011-2016 when the magnificent Hurricane Fly won on no less than 5 occasions in a row and the machine Faugheen won in 2016.
Will this year see the return of Willie into the winners enclosure or is there someone else with a horse to take the title of Irish Champion Hurdler for 2020?
The market is headed by the unbeaten Henry de Bromhead trained Honeysuckle, the 6 year old mare who has beaten all before her in her 6 outings to date. Honeysuckle ridden by Racheal Blackmore beat Bacardys and Apples Jade in her last outing at Fairyhouse at the start of December over 2 miles 4 furlongs with the trainer suggesting the drop back to 2 miles will not inconvenience her. One point to note here, Honeysuckle hasn’t run on a left handed track since winning a point to point 2 years ago. Could this be a possible issue or will she power away from her more experienced rivals as she has done to date?
Second in the betting we have the Willie Mullins trained Ricci owned Sharjah. A year older than Honeysuckle and therefore more experienced, Sharjah beat Petit Mouchoir over the Christmas period by 3 ¾ lengths. That win over 2 miles showed Sharjah at his best and could be the one to give Mullins yet another win in this race.
Willie Mullins also saddles Klassical Dream. Last season he was unstoppable winning the Supreme at Cheltenham and then followed up with the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown. However this season has been less impressive. Both runs have ended in defeat with excuses on both occasions, however he doesn’t seem to be in the form he was in last year. Still a fairly short price perhaps based on last year's form and the fact he is trained by Willie.
Envoi Allen is a novice who won the Cheltenham Bumper last season and has gone on this year to show he is a superstar in the making. It’s not clear whether he will run in this or indeed which race he will turn up for at Cheltenham. The Gordon Elliot trained novice has shown his ability and given the possible weakness of the 2m division this year there may be a chance of him turning up. It will be interesting if he is declared for the race at the weekend. If he does run and runs well expect him to turn up at Cheltenham for the champion hurdle!
Looking at the remainder of the field, Petit Mouchoir and Supasundae have won this before and will no doubt give their best, however this year looks like being a year for the up and coming stars.
Honeysuckle against Envoi Allen jumping the last would be a spectacle and something to dream of come the weekend!
BY MARTIN JULYAN