Anyone that has scrolled through the remaining 23 entries for the 2022 Unibet Champion Hurdle at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival will have likely come to the conclusion that viable opposition to Honeysuckle is extremely thin on the ground.
So sparse are challengers that it could easily be argued that only one horse stands between Honeysuckle and a second Champion Hurdle success. That horse is Appreciate It, the one entry in this race that has the potential to churn out bigger numbers than he has done already.
As things stand, Honeysuckle is the only Champion Hurdle entrant to be consistently churning out Racing Post Ratings of 160+, the level required to win championship races like this, and because she is a mare, she gets 7lbs from her male counterparts - which means they have to have to run to 170+ if they are to turn over an on-song Honeysuckle.
We already know that most of them, for all their talent, are not capable of reaching such levels.
And there was more bad news for potential layers on Henry De Bromhead’s outstanding mare; connections have reported this week that she is bigger and stronger than ever before. She won’t have to improve on what she did in this race in 2021, but the signs are that she might just be capable of doing so.
Honeysuckle won the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse for a third successive year in November, but she posted a bigger RPR (162) than she had in her previous two seasons and could hardly have been more impressive in slamming Ronald Pump by eight lengths.
Honeysuckle is no bigger than 8/11 to win the Champion Hurdle on the best betting apps, but that price is going to contract even further if she goes and wins the Irish Champion Hurdle for a third time in the style that we are expecting.
Sharjah is a general third-favourite at 8/1 with the best bookmakers in ante-post betting lists and I’m not in the business of knocking a horse that has won six Grade 1 races, but he was beaten almost seven lengths by Honeysuckle in last year’s race and three lengths by Epatante the year before.
One thing is for sure, if he can’t beat Epatante, he isn’t going to beat Honeysuckle - who has an official rating 12lbs superior to Nicky Henderson’s mare. The other snag for those looking to get Sharjah onside is that he’s now a nine-year-old and only two horses of that age have won this race since 1993.
Epatante herself looked in good shape when winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, however that was as weak a Grade 1 hurdle as you will find (all three rivals rated in the 140s) and she didn’t exactly go through the line in a manner that suggests she can serve it up to Honeysuckle.
Horses like Saint Roi and Zanahiyr are talented but neither have even won a Grade 1, let alone shown form good enough to run well in a Champion Hurdle. It all makes it really difficult to find serious opposition to the red-hot favourite.
Appreciate It (who can be found at 8/1 with Betfair) is the one Champion Hurdle contender that could still reach superstar status in his career, although admittedly it’s asking a lot for him to come out and beat Honeysuckle having not been seen since last year’s Cheltenham Festival.
However, we are talking about a horse that is unbeaten in four hurdles starts as a novice, three of which were in Grade 1 company. Meanwhile, he is arguably the most impressive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in modern times.
Sure, it was an unusually small field for the Supreme, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the way Willie Mullins’ charge travelled and jumped through that contest and it needs to be pointed out that Soaring Glory, who was thrashed 28 lengths, got within two-and-a-half lengths of Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle last month.
To give the performance of Appreciate It some context, his winning RPR of 165 has been bettered only by Altior's RPR of 166 in the last decade. We are talking as good as it gets from a novice hurdler.
The six-year-old was scheduled to go novice chasing this year and was understandably a big runner in Cheltenham ante post lists for the Arkle Chase until he met with a setback just before Christmas.
Connections swiftly decided that it was in the best interests of the horse to keep him to the smaller obstacles for the remainder of this season and his sole entry at Prestbury Park is the Champion Hurdle.
Appreciate It remains a ‘could be anything’ horse, unlike most of his fellow Champion Hurdle entrants, so although it will be a big ask to beat a mare as good as Honeysuckle without a prep run (to be fair, it would be a big ask WITH a prep run), he’s the only one that has the potential to rate high enough.
He looks just about the only horse standing in the way of Honeysuckle and more Cheltenham Festival glory.