Henry de Bromhead admits the excitement is really starting to build for the Cheltenham Festival as he puts the finishing touches to the preparations of defending champions Honeysuckle and Minella Indo.
The pair triumphed in the Unibet Champion Hurdle and Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup respectively last year, and Honeysuckle is a particularly hot favourite for Tuesday’s feature event, in which she will try to extend her unbeaten run to 15.
The eight-year-old added a third Irish Champion Hurdle to her tally at Leopardstown last month – a 10th Grade 1 triumph overall – after connections briefly flirted with the idea of embarking over fences this term.
De Bromhead is pleased owner Kenny Alexander opted to stick to hurdles and is anticipating a stern examination for the first lady of jumps racing next week.
He said: “Obviously we had to discuss whether she should go chasing at the beginning of the season, but I think Honey made the decision for us and we were all happy to stay over hurdles.
“Once we’d decided to do that, we took the view that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’ and we stuck with the same route as last year. Touch wood, it’s gone well so far.
“It looks a very good race, as you’d expect with any Champion Hurdle. I thought last year’s looked very good as well.”
Minella Indo’s chances of retaining his title are not quite so clear cut after a mixed campaign, pulling up in the King George VI Chase before returning to something like his usual form in the Irish Gold Cup.
He fended off the challenge of A Plus Tard to triumph at Prestbury Park last year and his stablemate is favourite this year after a demolition job in the Betfair Chase at Haydock before a narrow defeat at the hands of the reopposing Galvin in the Savills Chase at Christmas.
“I was obviously getting very excited last year. I was concerned that my two had gone on and they were going to get picked up by Paul Townend (on Al Boum Photo) at that stage, but they stuck it out really well and it was incredible,” De Bromhead told the Jockey Club.
“They’re both in great form and really well this year. A Plus Tard worked really well the other day and Indo had a great run in the Irish Gold Cup, so they’re both really good.”
In what was a thoroughly memorable Festival for the Knockeen trainer, he also landed the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On in a thrilling finish.
The eight-year-old has struggled to find her best since that victory, being beaten in the Celebration Chase at Sandown before failing to sparkle in either the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in November or when stepped up in trip and dropped to Grade 3 level at Fairyhouse.
However, De Bromhead retains faith and Put The Kettle On will shoot for Champion Chase gold again, rather than tackling the Grade 2 Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase.
“She’s turning her bottom and getting angrier again and fresh, which is a good sign. She worked really well the other day, so we’re delighted with her,” De Bromhead said.
“She’s got the option of the Mares’ Chase, but we felt she was entitled to go back and defend her crown and that’s where we’re going.”
The Waterford trainer could also run Envoi Allen in the Champion Chase, with the Cheveley Park runner having been an early casualty when a heavily supported favourite at the Festival last year.
“He’s in great form and worked really well the other day. There’s been no final decision made. He’s in the Ryanair and the Champion Chase and we’ll see nearer the time,” said De Bromhead.
Bob Olinger was on target in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle for the team in 2021 and he will be back for more as a short-priced market leader in the Turners Novices’ Chase.
Winner of two relatively low-key chases to date, Bob Olinger will take the two-and-a-half-mile test rather than going over three miles in the Brown Advisory.
De Bromhead added: “He’ll go for the Turners Novices’ Chase. His performance last year was really impressive and he’s been good this year so hopefully he’ll go and do something similar.”
Gin On Lime won a quite remarkable novices’ chase at Cheltenham on her most recent start back in November.
Her only rival, the sidelined My Drogo, looked set for victory as he took up the running at the second-last fence, only to slip on landing and dislodge his rider.
Gin On Lime also slipped after that fence, but Rachael Blackmore somehow managed to maintain the partnership and regain enough momentum to clear the final fence and she might contest the mares’ chase on the final day of the Festival.
De Bromhead said: “She seems in good form, obviously she was possibly a fortunate winner around there last year but she’s had a really good season. We’ve backed off her and given her a really good break and I think she’s aiming towards there but we haven’t confirmed just yet.
“We’re probably all getting a bit excited at this stage and it’s just a case of trying to keep everything on the right track really.
“You might leave a few down to declaration time in terms of finalising where you’re going. The way we travel is that our Tuesday and Wednesday runners leave on Saturday and our Thursday and Friday runners leave on the Monday, while I’ll come over on Sunday.
“We’re probably hoping to bring around 15-20 horses over, which is pretty similar to last year.”