Honeysuckle has been the Queen of Cheltenham in the last two seasons, winning back-to-back Champion Hurdles, but she faces the biggest challenge of her career this time around.
As the countdown for the 2023 Cheltenham Festival intensifies, we have taken a look at some of the horses expected to play major roles in the Cotswolds.
Henry De Bromhead's outstanding mare still fits the billing nicely, but she has a Constitution Hill-shaped barrier standing in her way as she goes in search of a record-equalling third win in the two mile Championship contest on 14th March.
|Where||Cheltenham Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire|
|When||3.30, Tuesday 14th March 2023|
|How to watch||ITV Racing, Racing TV & bet365 Sports Live Streaming|
|Odds||Constitution Hill 1/3, State Man 4/1, Honeysuckle 8/1, Vauban 9/1, Epatante 20/1|
No matter what the code or how long the sequence, an unbeaten racehorse will always garner that extra bit of attention. The longer the run goes on, the more intriguing it all becomes.
Witness the case of Baaeed on the Flat in the season just gone. He was the superstar story of the season, but it all ended in defeat at Ascot on Champions Day as his final appearance saw his air of invincibility brutally smashed.
Just a month or so later and Honeysuckle knew exactly how he felt.
The outstanding mare had won a point-to-point in 2018 and all 16 hurdles races in the colours of owner Kenny Alexander. With Rachael Blackmore on her back for each and every one of those starts under rules, they had become the Queens of National Hunt racing together.
A dozen of those wins had come in Grade 1 company and, heading to Fairyhouse for their traditional seasonal bow, a record-breaking fourth Hatton's Grace win seemed inevitable, but it was not to be.
She typically went well, made smooth headway to lead before two out, but could not get away from the chasing pair of Teahupoo and Klassical Dream and she was picked off late on before finishing third. The bubble was burst.
In the immediate aftermath, trainer De Bromhead and connections were left to ponder, what next?
It was generally agreed Honeysuckle had run close to her best in the Hatton's Grace, but a combination of testing conditions over the two-and-a-half-mile trip and the presence of stronger opposition than in previous years was her undoing.
Meanwhile, across in England, Constitution Hill had mopped up the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on his comeback run for Nicky Henderson.
Last year's outstanding novice also won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in a common canter and finds himself as short as 1/3 to win the Champion Hurdle now.
Initially, De Bromhead made noises that the Mares' Hurdle - a race won by Honeysuckle in 2020 - could be targeted again come March, raising the possibility she'd swerve a showdown with Henderson's star. Mercifully, that has since been ruled out.
The alternative isn't altogether pleasant reading for Honeysuckle's legion of fans. She will head for the Irish Champion Hurdle on 5th February at the Dublin Racing Festival - a race she is now 2/1 to win - and a further setback there likely means retirement.
This was always planned to be Honeysuckle's final season and two successive defeats are going to leave connections willing to draw stumps early, as Alexander's racing manager Peter Molony revealed: "It'll be Champion Hurdle or retire her - one or the other."
All eyes are on Leopardstown in early February.
Of course, victory in that Irish Champion Hurdle - which would be her fourth on the spin - can still tee Honeysuckle up for a showdown with the most exciting young horse in training on 14th March.
The racing public is desperate to see Constitution Hill versus Honeysuckle. It was billed as the story of the season last summer and, with just one minor setback, it would be churlish to write it off.
Of course, such has been the majesty of Constitution Hill's performances this season that 8/1 Honeysuckle is left requiring a potential career-best on paper in what could be her final run on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
If she can down the likes of 4/5 State Man at Leopardstown in the Irish Champion Hurdle, it's probable she will get that chance.
She is 3-3 around Cheltenham, with those two imperious Champion Hurdles on her CV, and the Hatton's Grace run hinted that a stiff two miles around Prestbury Park will be optimal for her now.
No horse so far has even managed to engage Constitution Hill in a meaningful battle. Perhaps he's just too good for that to even happen this season, but one thing is for sure, the Queen of the Cotswolds deserve her shot at it.