A mouthwatering clash between Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux looks set to light up the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival after connections of the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle winner on Wednesday intimated that the Mares’ Hurdle is the most likely destination for their unbeaten star.
The key factor in their decision is the two-and-a-half-mile trip of the Close Brothers-sponsored mares’ event, which is seen as Honeysuckle’s optimum.
Honeysuckle handled the drop back to two miles fine to land the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown under Rachael Blackmore, but she didn’t impress with her jumping that day and the form of the race is held back by the 146-rated runner up.
Peter Molony, racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander, said: “Nothing is set in stone but we’re still leaning towards the Mares’ Hurdle with Honeysuckle.
“The main reason is that two and a half miles is her optimum trip. She’s top-class over two and a half miles and we want to do what’s best for the mare at Cheltenham.”
Molony added: “Obviously there's a big temptation to go for the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle. It looks an open year and, of course, you have to take into account the frightening spectre of Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle.
“If Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux do meet in the Mares’ it could well be the race of the whole week.”
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The Mares’ Hurdle remains the most likely target for Benie Des Deux despite her owner Rich Ricci announcing at the weekend that he would have to have a conversation with Willie Mullins about the possibility of supplementing her for the Champion Hurdle, especially in what is seen as an open year.
That quickly prompted some firms to introduce Benie Des Dieux into their Champion Hurdle lists as 5/2 favourite, ahead of the best English-based mare in training, Epatante.
Benie Des Dieux won the Mares’ Hurdle in 2018 but proved costly for punters the following season where she fell at the final flight (10/11 favourite), with the race at her mercy.
Paddy Power immediately reacted to the Honeysuckle news by cutting the unbeaten mare into 2/1 second favourite for the mares’ contest behind 4/5 market leader Benie Des Dieux.
Their spokesman Paul Binfield said: “The news that connections of Honeysuckle are leaning towards the Mares’ Hurdle means we could now see an epic clash between the two best mares in Ireland in what is a real fillip for a race that has attracted some derision since its inception.
“The Mares' Hurdle hasn't been a great race for favourite backers in recent years but we still think the most likely outcome is Benie Des Dieux making up for last year’s costly defeat.
“However, while she was seen by many as one of the bankers of the meeting, her task will be a fair bit harder with the brilliant Honeysuckle in opposition.”