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Cheltenham - Racing: Appreciate Honeysuckle all the way

Day one of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday is to be headlined by the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, as she goes searching for a second successive Champion Hurdle win.

Rachael Blackmore guided the mare to glory last March in front of an empty grandstand - but it will be a much-changed scene come 15:30 on Tuesday afternoon when the thronged enclosures will be desperate to see Honeysuckle strutting her stuff.

She faces a field of nine rivals and the outstanding mare looks like she'll take some stopping.

Here's our Champion Hurdle preview ahead of Tuesday's feature race at the Cheltenham Festival.

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Honeysuckle deserves her crown

She's been dubbed the 'Queen of the jumps' and it's hard to make any argument against the notion Honeysuckle deserves that accolade.

She has won all 14 starts under the Rules of racing and a point-to-point to go along with them. Darver Star got within a half-length in February 2020 when she won her first Irish Champion Hurdle and a month later Benie Des Dieux was beaten by the same margin as she won the Mares' Hurdle in Cheltenham under an inspired Blackmore ride.

It's been more or less a procession since, save for a seasonal comeback Hatton's Grace win at Fairyhouse in November 2020 when Ronald Pump gave her a scare but she responded to the question asked and got the verdict.

She won this race a year ago with lots to spare and while the runner-up Sharjah got closer to her at Punchestown, applying the pressure when Honeysuckle produced a mediocre jump at the last, she again responded to the prospect of adversity with a telling surge to the line.

She has the answers when it gets tough and, most times, her mid-race ability ensures it doesn't come to that.

Blackmore will turn the taps around a half-mile from the end and Honeysuckle will leave her rivals gasping for air. The sting will be drawn from them, and in all probability, it will be newspapers in the air to greet the winner when she clears the last and comes up the hill to rapturous cheers and fully deserved acclaim. She's 8/13 and so she should be.

The bare facts back that theory up. An official rating of 165 makes Honeysuckle the best in the race, 2lb better than improving Teahupoo. So the stats tell us she's the best horse - and then her rivals have to concede her the 7lb mares' allowance. Barring an accident, this has the hallmarks of becoming 15-0 for this magical mare.

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Appreciate the scale of the challenge

Last year's Supreme Novices' winner Appreciate It trades next best in the betting at 4/1. He won the curtain-raiser by 24-lengths last March and, at that exact moment, nobody would have questioned the suggestion he'd be this price for a Champion Hurdle 12 months down the line.

The trouble is, we haven't seen him since. Connections made clear over the summer their plan was to go novice chasing but that didn't materialise. Presumably a setback of some description at home - possibly quite minor - prevented that plan.

Since around Christmas, this has been the new plan. And yet, no prep-race was taken in. So, 364 days later, Appreciate It returns to the Cotswolds attempting the almost unthinkable in looking to win a Supreme Novices' Hurdle and a Champion Hurdle in successive racecourse appearances.

It's borderline nonsensical in theory. If he wasn't trained by a certain Willie Mullins, would the notion even be entertained? Of course, he is trained by the Festival's all-time leading handler and so that does change things significantly. Even so, this would be an extraordinary feat of training if it comes off.

Reducing the pack

The likes of 80/1 Glory And Fortune and 80/1 Not So Sleepy look hard-pressed in this company, while even 20/1 Zanahiyr was put away last month by Honeysuckle with consummate ease and needs a major reversal in fortune to turn it around.

Nicky Henderson knows how to win Champion Hurdles better than anyone but the Seven Barrows maestro readily concedes that the 2020 version won by Epatante was probably sub-standard on reflection. The second mare in the field, she has got her career back on track this season but the 14/1 chance will do exceptionally well to lay a blow on Honeysuckle. Making the frame would be quite some effort.

Tommy's Oscar is rapidly progressive in handicaps of late for Ann Hamilton and would be some fairytale. He's 33/1 and stepping into the ring with heavyweights now. It's unlikely that he packs the knockout blow needed, but he could run well and, potentially, into the frame at a chunky price.

Saint Roi is another that has plodded around after Honeysuckle on more than one occasion and the 2020 County Hurdle scorer is winless since October of that same year.

A duel for silver medal

If Honeysuckle does indeed prove her superiority, there may well be a real scrap for the silver medal. Indeed, punters will also be considering the 'betting without the favourite' market as a possibility in this race, with nine runners and three places to play for there.

With the long absence capable of proving the undoing of Appreciate It, it may well be that Teahupoo at 8/1 and Adagio at 18/1 are key players in the places race.

Gordon Elliott has watched Teahupoo improve all season long in Ireland. He's only had once reversal since arriving from France, in a Fairyhouse Grade 2 as a raw-enough four-year-old last spring.

He pushed aside last year's Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios in November's return at Naas and then showed a proper stomach for a fight when overhauling that same opponent at Limerick next time.

February's 11-length dismissal of Darasso (with Quilixios a further 11 lengths back third) in the Grade 3 Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park was a personal best and he's a worthy runner here.

David Pipe's Adagio might be the value call, however. He was second in that Triumph Hurdle here last March and filled the same berth in an Aintree Grade 1 afterwards.

He reappeared with a close second behind plot-horse West Cork in what has turned out to be a really strong Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November.

He wasn't out again until last month where he went down fighting behind Goshen in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Some will have issue with that form, given Goshen has come up so short in this race himself a year ago. It is indisputable that Gary Moore's charge is a different prospect going right-handed on soft ground. On his day, Goshen is a superbly talented individual and pushing him so close in what amounted to a 'home game' was a fine effort.

Adagio can build on that run and put up a career-best in the Champion Hurdle. That might not be enough to dethrone the 'Queen of Cheltenham' but it could be good enough for a podium finish.

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