Trainer Henry de Bromhead is yet to decide the intended target for the unbeaten Honeysuckle ahead of The Festival™ presented by Magners at Cheltenham Racecourse.
De Bromhead has enjoyed seven winners at The Festival, all of which have been achieved since 2010. His CV includes victories in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with Sizing Europe (2011) and Special Tiara (2017), as well as a Ryanair Chase success in 2017 with Balko Des Flos.
Stable star Honeysuckle has taken her form to another level this term with a facile nine-length victory in the G1 Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December backed up by a tenacious half-length win in the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown earlier this month.
The six-year-old mare could take in either the £450,000 G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle alongside stable companion Petit Mouchoir on day one, Tuesday, 10 March of the meeting or the £120,000 G1 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle (2m 3f 200y) 40 minutes later, where she could meet four-time G1 heroine Benie Des Dieux (Willie Mullins).
Discussing the dilemma at Punchestown Racecourse this afternoon, de Bromhead said: "Honeysuckle is in both races. I think we will just keep all our options open at the moment.
"I would hate to lead anyone the wrong way. At the moment, we will just get her there and see how she is. She is in mighty form and it was great to win an Irish Champion Hurdle with her. It was only the last two hurdles she didn't jump too well. I thought we learnt how tenacious she was when winning last time out. She was tough and had to dig deep. She made a funny jump at the last hurdle, but she's just such a good mare and displayed such a tough attitude. I think she just got a bit lonely out in front. She has never really been asked that strong a question before in her races.
"I wouldn't be making statements as to where she will be going at the moment. There are loads of different factors. Benie Des Dieux is another brilliant mare and it would be some race if they ended up taking each other on.
"The other side of that is that we all want to win there and we have a lot to weigh up between now and Cheltenham as to where she runs. I would imagine that we would leave the decision pretty late, but I haven't spoken to the guys (Honeysuckle is owned by Kenny Alexander) about it yet. We have got a lot to weigh up."
"Petit Mouchoir has been superb for us. He is as tough as you can get and I don't see why any of the horses that have finished behind him before will finish in front of him at Cheltenham."
The consistent Monalee could be the stable's sole representative in Jump racing's Blue Riband event, the £625,000 G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on the fourth and final day of The Festival, Friday, 13 March.
The nine-year-old finished second, beaten a head by subsequent G1 Irish Gold Cup scorer Delta Work in the G1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas and has been specifically kept fresh for the three and a quarter-mile event at Cheltenham, with regular pilot Rachael Blackmore once again set to take the ride. Chris's Dream relished testing ground conditions when backing up victory in the Troytown Chase at Navan with a smooth win in the G2 Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on February 15. However, connections are yet to decide whether he will run at the meeting in either the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup or the £350,000 G1 Ryanair Chase (Thursday, March 12, 2m 4f 127y) or miss The Festival altogether.
De Bromhead continued: "Monalee seems in good form. We have trained him for the race. He had a lovely run at Christmas where he was unfortunate not to win. He has rock-solid form, enjoys going around Cheltenham and he's ready to go. I am glad we decided to head straight to Cheltenham after that, because the ground was probably a bit better than what we would have ideally wanted at the Dublin Racing Festival.
"When he was beaten by Presenting Percy in the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (2018), he went by us and then we plugged on again so there is a question for his stamina, but I think he gets the trip.
"Chris's Dream had a tough enough race the other day. He has been moved up to a rating of 164 with victory in a race I thought was over an inadequate trip for him. We are definitely considering it, but there is also Aintree and Punchestown."
A Plus Tard will atempt to provide the Waterford trainer with a third victory in the Ryanair Chase. Dropped back in trip on his latest start, the six-year-old defeated Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase contender Chacun Pour Soi to record a first success at G1 level. Victorious by 16 lengths in the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase at The Festival in 2019, de Bromhead is relishing the prospect of seeing the Cheveley Park Stud-owned contender return to Prestbury Park for the two miles and five furlong event.
"A Plus Tard has been in great form", commented de Bromhead. "He reverted back to two miles at Leopardstown over Christmas as I have a feeling he is better left-handed rather than going right-handed. There we're many two miles and four furlong condition chases on left-handed tracks, but he couldn't have done it any better than he did.
"We were planning to run him again at the Dublin Racing Festival in the Dublin Chase, but it was soft ground when he won at Leopardstown in Christmas and I thought back over two miles he just needed something to slow his rivals down a little bit. So we scratched him from that race, he is in great form and I think we are pretty much going for the Ryanair. If it turned up bottomless, we might consider the Champion Chase, but I think we are pretty much set that we are going for the Ryanair."
Strength in depth is a key facet of de Bromhead's 2020 Cheltenham battalion, highlighted by his exciting novice chase duo Notebook and Minella Indo, who both hold strong claims in their respective targets at the meeting.
Notebook, unbeaten in four starts over fences this term, produced a game performance to record a second G1 win over the larger obstacles in the ERSG Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown's Dublin Racing Festival earlier this month. He is the market leader for the £175,000 G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase (Tuesday, March 10, 1m 7f 199y), a contest de Bromhead won with Sizing Europe in 2010.
Minella Indo tasted success at last year's Cheltenham Festival when springing a 50/1 shock in the G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. Second to Laurina on his debut over fences, the imposing gelding defeated subsequent Graded scorer Captain Cj in a beginners' chase over three miles at Navan in January and is on course to contest the £175,000 G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Wednesday, 11 March, 3m 80y).
De Bromhead said: "Notebook is in great form and has obviously stepped up once again now switched to fences which was what we hoped he would. He won the Irish Arkle which was brilliant and we'll see how we go - he seems in great shape. A lot of our horses ran fresh at the Dublin Racing Festival and we will make sure he wears earplugs at Cheltenham. He was obviously very keen on the way to the start at Leopardstown, but I think he was just very psyched up to race. He seems to love jumping fences.
"Minella Indo is good. He missed the Christmas period at Leopardstown when the ground was a bit quicker than ideal and we waited for a beginners' chase at Navan and we were delighted with him there. He won and the horse he beat [Captain Cj] won on Sunday at Navan in G2 company. He got the job done that day and we have been very happy with him since. Ideally, I would probably have liked some more experience for him over fences, but he has been well-schooled and I'm happy enough with him."
De Bromhead also has a litany of talent in the novice hurdling division headed by Aspire Tower, a winner of two of his three starts since joining the yard from Steve Gollings. The four-year-old fell at the final flight when holding every chance in the G1 Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown earlier this month, whilst the unexposed Captain Guinness, a fine second to Andy Dufresne in the G2 Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in January, tackles the opening contest of the four-day extravaganza, the £125,000 G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Tuesday, March 10, 2m 87y).
He continued: "Aspire Tower is fine and obviously it is not an ideal preparation falling on your last start before Cheltenham, but he schooled very well the other day. Rachael thought he had plenty of petrol left in the tank when he fell at Leopardstown and the Triumph Hurdle is very much the target with him."
"Captain Guinness will run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and is in good form.
"Cobbler's Way is in both the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Wednesday, March 11, 2m 5f) and the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Friday, March 13, 2m 7f 213y). At the moment I would be leaning towards the Albert Bartlett. He's a lovely horse and is in good form.
"Minella Melody won well at Fairyhouse the other day. She is a gorgeous mare and probably wants further than two miles. However, she heads for the G2 Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Thursday, March 12, 2m 179y) and we've been very pleased with her since that latest run."
Jessica Harrington believes G1 winner Supasundae is a live outsider for the £450,000 G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle on the first day of The Festival.
Harrington is set to have a small but select team at this year's meeting as she bids to add to her haul of 11 winners at The Festival. Supasundae, a 10-year-old captured the 2017 Coral Cup at the meeting and was also second in the 2018 Stayers' Hurdle. Supasundae has been restricted to one run this term, but shaped encouragingly when fourth to Honeysuckle in the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown earlier this month.
A 14/1 shot for the two-mile hurdling championship with the sponsor, Harrington is expecting a bold show from her charge in a contest she won back in 2014 with Jezki.
Harrington reported today: "I am absolutely thrilled with Supasundae. He ran well at Leopardstown and will come on a ton from that. He did a bit of work this morning and I was delighted with him. He's in great form and we just got off to a very slow start with him this year.
"The trainer might have finally got it right, two miles round Cheltenham might be right for him. He just doesn't seem to stay up the hill over three miles. Supasundae won't mind if the ground is testing or it's good ground and I am very happy with him. We will head on there before going to Aintree and then Punchestown."
Harrington is set to be triple-handed at The Festival with Silver Sheen, unbeaten in three starts, set to head for the £100,000 Pertemps Network Final (Tuesday, March 12, 2m 7f 213y), whilst Neverushacon, a convincing winner of the opening Cross Country Chase at Punchestown this afternoon, is on course to meet dual scorer Tiger Roll in the £65,000 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (Wednesday, 11 March, 3m 6f 37y).
Discussing the pair, the Co Kildare handler said: "Silver Sheen has qualified for the Pertemps Final and we'll take a chance after his win at Warwick that a mark of 136 will get him into the race. He stays very well, jumps very well and a strong gallop would suit. He is only a novice but he goes there in great form.
"I am delighted with Neverushacon. He is a horse who has won on the flat, over hurdles, over jumps and now in the cross country sphere. I just thought this year as he is such a good jumper that it was worth running him in these type of races and he just absolutely loves it. I do not want heavy ground like we had in December. I want nice firm ground which has about as much chance as happening as me flying to the moon!"
Enda Bolger has been dubbed "The King of the Banks" with five victories in the £65,000 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase courtesy of Spot Thedifference (2005), Heads Onthe Ground (2007), Garde Champetre (2008, 2009) and Josies Orders (2016). He is set to be represented in this year's renewal by the the JP McManus-owned duo, Yanworth and Josies Orders who finished third and fourth respectively behind Harrington's Neverushacon at Punchestown this afternoon.
However, Bolger thinks they have plenty to find with Tiger Roll, who is chasing a third success in the race and a fifth victory at The Festival overall. He commented: "They both ran well and were in a proper race today. They are both set to go run in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. I think Tiger Roll will be very hard to beat in the race. He is just made for that sort of race and he has relished the test on his last two runs in the race.
"We are also set to run a nice horse Staker Wallace in the St James's Place Foxhunters Chase (Friday, March 13) called who qualified for the race the other day and is progressive."