SIX winners at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival confirmed Henry de Bromhead’s status as an elite racehorse trainer, fully entitled to rub shoulders with Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott.
In fact de Bromhead’s unprecedented ‘Triple Crown’ of capturing the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup in the one week put him in a category all on his own, a reputation which would be further enhanced with an Aintree Grand National victory just a few weeks later.
How do you follow that? Well, the trainer himself - a renowned worrier - would probably say ‘the only way is down’ though privately he will have been determined to not only maintain his success rate but to continue to grow the strength of his Co Waterford stables.
It was of no concern that the yard only had two minor winners at the Galway Festival. Just one winner at Listowel was also easily explained.
Of more concern was the ankle injury sustained by stable jockey Rachael Blackmore at Killarney in July. However when Blackmore returned from injury in October, and de Bromhead provided her with her first winner back – in the race won by Minella Indo a year earlier – the omens looked good for the winter ahead.
A week later Envoi Allen landed a Grade 2 at Down Royal with ease although Gold Cup winner Minella Indo was a shade disappointing in the Grade 1 chase on the same day. Captain Guinness, Notebook and Gua De Large won nice pots for the pair in November, a month when Willie Mullins didn’t come out to play due to unusually dry conditions.
On November 20th A Plus Tard simply destroyed the opposition in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. Meanwhile, Bob Olinger put up a sparkling chase debut at Gowran Park and there were also nice performances at around that time from young horses Grand Jury and Largy Debut. When Honeysuckle won a third Hatton’s Grace Hurdle on November 28th, it was all going to plan for Team de Bromhead.
But then things started to go wrong. Between December 26th and New Year’s Day, the yard had 70 runners. Just four of them won, and that included a workmanlike performance by Envoi Allen in a three-runner Grade 1 race. During the same period a year earlier, de Bromhead had seven winners from 58 runners.
Again, no cause for alarm but perhaps a raised eyebrow or two. You could argue A Plus Tard had only been beaten by a nose in the Savills Chase, Quilixios did everything but win at Limerick, and Coeur Sublime just bumped into a good one in Ferny Hollow.
However, the nagging suspicion that the Knockeen horses were just running a bit below their best still hung in the air through January. Fair enough, Bob Olinger won again, Grand Jury was a reasonable second in a Grade 1, and Coeur Sublime put in an exhibition of jumping at Gowran Park.
On the other hand, Put The Kettle On looked a shadow of her former self at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day, and the expensive purchase Guily Billy was pulled up at Punchestown.
On January 24th, the trainer told The Irish Times: “I wouldn’t say we’re all guns blazing but I also think a lot of it is we just haven’t got the bounce of the ball.
“We’re obviously not on full cylinders. But with a good few of them I just felt we weren’t getting the bounce of the ball. We could have had four other winners at Christmas, three of them on the last day.
“And if A Plus Tard had won the Savills we’d be told we were having a brilliant Christmas.
“These were beaten a head or half a length and they could easily have gone the other way for us. Since then we’re tipping away. They certainly seem in good form at the moment.”
A few days later de Bromhead ran five horses at Gowran Park’s Goffs Thyestes meeting. Coeur Sublime, a ¤260,000 purchase at the Goffs Punchestown Sale in 2018, duly won his beginners’ chase at odds of 1/12 but the other four – including two favourites – were beaten a long way.
Dublin Racing Festival
Things didn’t improve over the following week and now the Dublin Racing Festival was approaching.
Pundits and keyboard warriors were openly questioning the well-being of the yard’s runners. Nobody dared suggest Honeysuckle would not win a third Irish Champion Hurdle but in the Leopardstown bars, betting ring, press room and grandstand, the chat was that it would be reassuring to see de Bromhead’s horses put in a good showing ahead of Honeysuckle’s date with destiny.
However, the fact that the yard only declared four runners on the Saturday at Leopardstown and eight on the Sunday was concerning. A year earlier, de Bromhead saddled 19 runners over the same weekend and he had 20 runners the year before.
As it transpired, Saturday’s quartet brought mixed results. Second favourite Grand Jury was beaten a long way out in a Grade 1 novice hurdle but Minella Indo ran respectably when second in the Irish Gold Cup.
A day later, Captain Guinness put up a reasonable showing against the mighty Chacun Pour Soi, but Grand National winner Minella Times really struggled in a race that, 12 months earlier, he had gone close to winning.
All the while, the hype around Honeysuckle was growing. A win today would see her unbeaten record stretch to 14, equalling that of Bula and even Frankel. She was the 1/5 favourite on a day when the previous five favourites had won. For different reasons, there was a lot riding on this race for a lot of people.
Never in danger
Of course, to great relief, the magical mare did not disappoint. Honeysuckle was never in danger and won by more than six lengths. If we’re being critical, you might have liked to see her win by even further. When she quickened five lengths clear of the final bend, a double-digit winning margin seemed certain.
She looked to be about eight lengths in front jumping the last but, despite being ridden out to the line, her advantage was reduced passing the post. Not that anyone cared in the moments of celebration that followed. Afterwards, de Bromhead admitted to feeling the pressure.
“There’s plenty of pressure with her, with all of them, but it’s got to the stage where you just want her back safe and sound. If she gets beaten, she gets beaten.
“To be associated with a mare like her, we’re incredibly lucky. When Hurricane Fly was doing this [won five Irish Champion Hurdles] I dreamt of having a horse like him. Now we have something similar.
“Racehorses are athletes and they all have injuries. The simplest thing can go wrong but, touch wood, she is such a sound mare. As a novice she got a bit of ringworm which caused her to miss Cheltenham. But even that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We missed a Grade 2 at Cheltenham and won a Grade 1 at home instead.”
Asked if had been concerned about the stable’s form coming into the race, the trainer acknowledged that it was on his mind.
“At the moment, they do seem to be struggling. I’m not in denial but can I pinpoint anything? We have been testing everything constantly. It can be very frustrating. They all seem in good form at home but some of them are not finishing out their races. You get spells like that and you just have to work through them.”
As Henry de Bromhead knows, you need everything to go right for you in Cheltenham week. You need the rub of the green, the bounce of the ball. Above all, you need to have your horses 100% healthy. If they are even a fraction off their A-game, they won’t win.
The exception may be Honeysuckle. At time of writing, Honeysuckle was the 1/2 favourite to successfully defend her Champion Hurdle title on March 15th. Chances are that Rachael Blackmore’s mount can afford to be a little off her best and still win at Cheltenham. However, it might be prudent to keep an eye on the general form of the yard’s runners between now and then.
The trainer has had to call on all his experience this season, navigating tricky waters with his horses. Running them in the right spots, getting experince into them but keeping them at home when his gut told him not to play his hand just yet. All the while trying to ensure there isn’t a low-level bug holding them back.
Racing fans will be hoping, along with the trainer, that his horses will peak at just the right time. ?
HENRY DE BROMHEAD’S LEADING CHELTENHAM HOPES
Unbeaten mare and reigning champion. Undoubtedly the opening day’s banker for many in the Champion Hurdle.
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner has been beaten on all three starts since then and is a Champion Hurdle outsider. He still has plenty of ability and may just need another season to reach his peak.
Winner of the Mares’ Novice Hurdle here last season, she caught the eye when third at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival and is clear favourite to win the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day. She’s no Honeysuckle, but won’t need to be to win this.
JOURNEY WITH ME
Hailed by some as the next Bob Olinger, he boasts a very similar profile to last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner. However, he’s only a maiden hurdle winner and seems to have been a little overhyped by some pundits.
He has done nothing wrong in two starts over fences and deserves maximum respect in the Turner Novices’ Chase (2m 5f), his most likley target.
A year ago he looked invincible but life’s been tougher since he fell at last year’s Festival. The Champion Chase looks the best option for him, as owners Cheveley Park Stud have Allaho for the Ryanair Chase. Hard to see him beating Shishkin & co.
A PLUS TARD
A fair second in last year’s Gold Cup, he never runs a bad race at Cheltenham. Only beaten by a short-head at Leopardstown over Christmas, he could win the Gold Cup if things go right on the day.
Another who has run well on all three previous visits to Cheltenham. He will be a good price to repeat his Gold Cup win, having lost his last three starts.
PUT THE KETTLE ON
Winner of an Arkle and Champion Chase, she adores Cheltenham but the fact she is being considered for the Mares’ Chase this year indicates connections feel she’s not at her best.
GIN ON LIME
A dark horse for the Mares’ Chase. She has been kept away from the track since a remarkable Cheltenham success in November.
Sure to be a popular choice for the Grand Annual Chase, this novice carries the same colours as former Festival winners Klairon Davis, What A Charm and Tiger Cry.