Kempton Park Racecourse 26.12.22 The Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle Race Constitution Hill ridden by Nico de Boinville wins. Photo Andy Watts /

(Late) Monday Musings: The Ol’ One-Two

You have a mare like Epatante, winner of a past Champion Hurdle, successful in 11 and placed in seven more of her 19 career runs and you now know – having witnessed Aintree last year, that she probably ought to be contesting races of 2m4f up, writes Tony Stafford.

With the weather as it has been and the Ascot course’s susceptibility to rapid changes of going, Nicky Henderson was pushed into allowing her to take on stable star – sorry, world phenomenon – Constitution Hill as the calendar compressed when the Fighting Fifth came along.

Instead of the queen, she became the high-maintenance Queen Consort, by her liege’s side until turning for home and then deferring graciously while accepting a £20k pay-day for her trouble.

Once the pattern was set, who was to complain when the old one-two was set in motion again for yesterday’s Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle? While there were five starters, the box which brought the big two to Sunbury might just as easily have been transporting the elite pair across Lambourn for a routine gallop.

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As they turned for home, Highway One O One had the temerity to sit in between his betters, still just second as the mare started to flex her muscles. You could not have predicted what happened from that point based on what you had seen until that point, but the evidence of Cheltenham last March and Gosforth Park last month gave the game away.

Mark Johnson’s commentary told it all. Just over a length before two out, three lengths from Epatante on the way to the last; stretched to eight at that final flight and once he met it running, a 17-length margin on a track where distances are never exaggerated unlike many courses in winter ground.

For two little spins behind Constitution Hill, Epatante has picked up around £50k this season and is now that amount short of £1 million in career earnings. Nicky Henderson seems to be favouring going straight to the Festival with this best hurdler I have ever seen and rightly so, I’m sure.

It’s that final kick that is other-worldly. Horses can finish well: he finishes them off and with no suggestion of any weakness; ground or track, style of racing – he has it all.

The Irish must be hoping that somehow his level of ability suddenly drops off, but if Henderson has acquired anything in a training career exceeding 40 years, it’s knowing how to win a big race with a favourite. And even he has never had a favourite like this one.

I was delighted when I saw him at the Horserace Writers and Photographers lunch after he collected his Order Of Merit award for his outstanding career. He was truly chuffed and I told him I thought it well deserved. The shy nature that often comes out in his dealings with the media was there all through that afternoon.

His reputation, already secured, will now have the added insurance, as with Sir Henry Cecil and Frankel, of having his best-ever horse towards the end of his career. It’s probably a case of how long he, Michael Buckley and the horse can be bothered with steam-rollering good (but not good enough) opponents.

I was less delighted to pick up Covid there, after two and a half years of escaping it. I got it mildly, but you never know what’s underneath. At least, it’s not like being a little bit pregnant!

It was a great day for heroes old and new at Kempton yesterday and if anyone thinks that Kempton is a sharp track, the result of the redirected Long Walk Hurdle, from a frozen this time Ascot, would have entertained second thoughts at least.

Here that great stayer Paisley Park came from the back of the field to out-finish Goshen – in the new long-distance role which he can adorn – and Champ by an emphatic margin in a domestic private affair. The Irish will be out in force at Cheltenham in March, but Andrew Gemmell’s heroic 10-year-old can be relied upon to keep his end up.

Times are often misleading but if you had an involvement with Rare Edition, the Charlie Longsdon novice who easily won Monday’s Kempton opener, you would be thrilled to see that his winning time was only two seconds slower than that recorded by Constitution Hill. A seven-length winner, it would be great if this initially non-winning graduate from the Irish point-to-point field, but now unbeaten in four for Longsdon, could challenge the stars next March.

One invader from Ireland that could be there to challenge him is the one-time Derby favourite, High Definition, who made a winning hurdles debut at Leopardstown from the Joseph O’Brien stable ten minutes before Rare Edition showed his paces.

High Definition had won his first two races as a juvenile, including a Group 2, before going into winter quarters with the endorsement of Joseph’s father Aidan ringing in the professionals’ ears. Even when he came back late and looking lazy in the Dante, the story still held over logic, but he never made it to Epsom and then never looked in with a chance when he did get his chance in a Classic on the Curragh in late June.

Until yesterday, High Definition had gone more than two years without winning – his best performance being a second to Alenquer in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup over ten furlongs in May.

Because there are so many horses that want for some inexplicable reason to take on Messrs Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead and, yes, when he has a suitable one, O’Brien junior, you get the sort of field that faced High Definition. Twenty-seven runners around Leopardstown, but happily that’s a big, wide track, and it’s made easier as self-selection probably boils this down to three lots of nine.

The old instruction by the UK starters in the days of Gordon Richards either side of WW2 and the old 'gate' starts of “triers at the front” is an approximation to how it works in Irish (and some British) novice races today. They quickly sort out into manageable groupings – three races in one.

Just a look at the first seven there: O’Brien, from Jessica Harrington, Willie Mullins, Peter Fahey, de Bromhead, Mullins again and Gordon Elliott, tells a tale if not a definitive one. The other 20 have to look after themselves, although there’s some pricey types back there too on probably different time-schedules with handicaps in mind for many.

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The Racing TV shrewdies – and Boxing Day’s lot, which included Dave Nevison, were sharp enough – noticed High Definition is still  a colt, until next Sunday at any rate when he becomes a horse – of course! The Coolmore NH stallion roster is a highly lucrative end of the business and they reasoned that could be his magnum opus.

It was only on December 20th that High Definition morphed from the usual Coolmore owner group to Mrs J Magnier’s sole possession. I’m sure the others can come back in if and when they wish. I’d love to see High Definition at Cheltenham, possibly measuring up to the more NH-oriented Rare Edition, who showed his paces just 10 minutes later.

Those same Racing TV boys seemed to think the Triumph Hurdle is all but won already, a pretty complacent view at this stage. The Willie Mullins-trained Lossiemouth, another of those unbeaten French purchases, won her graded race for juveniles in almost five seconds slower time than High Definition earlier in the card, but she impressed Dave in particular.

She did win as she liked, making it three easy victories in three. A rare bargain from France at €14k before she had run, she is by Great Pretender, from the family of smart flat-racer Lord Glitters. She must be one of the cheaper buys to grace the Cheltenham-voracious Ricci colours.

Once more, Coquelicot has run in the couple of days before my article, at Kempton yesterday for a 3m mares’ handicap hurdle with six in opposition. She beat a Dan Skelton rival in West Balboa last time at Sandown and this time had the favourite Get A Tonic from the same source ten lengths behind. Alas, on revised weight terms and after a more contested early lead than she's recently encountered, she gave best to the aforementioned Charlie Longsdon-trained Glimpse Of Gala, the rest of the field strung out behind at five length intervals. Hard luck, Mr Editor and partners, but she'll be winning again soon.

- TS

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