Constitution Hill and Nico De Boinville lead all the way to win the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle from Epatante [right] and Not So Sleepy [left]. 26/11/2022 Pic Steve Davies/

Monday Musings: Of Champions – Past, Present and Future

The minute the decision was made to pull Constitution Hill out of a probable exhibition round that was going to double as his return to action at Ascot last weekend, you knew Nicky Henderson would merely shrug his shoulders and switch him to Newcastle, writes Tony Stafford.

What about 2020 Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante, long since pencilled in for a third consecutive challenge after one and a half wins (she shared the 2021 Fighting Fifth Hurd1e with Not So Sleepy)? Tough, she can run too, he reasoned. As I said here last week, he has plenty of previous.

The net effect: J P McManus, instead of collecting the owner’s share of £64,710, cedes that to Michael Buckley and gets instead £24,380. Lady Blyth, whose Not So Sleepy finished well to get within two and a half lengths of Epatante on ground faster than ideal, collected half of what would have been the case. Then again, J P has become used to that sort of thing over the years.

While Nicky looked on from Newbury, animatedly showing the cameras a real anxiety at the outcome, Buckers made the journey and shared in the wonder of it all with the viewers. Meanwhile, back at Newbury, Hendo was resplendent in the Cossack-style hat he had bought at the Peter O’Sullevan lunch on Thursday, a midwinter accoutrement for the master commentator, a man rightly still revered seven years after his death at the age of 97.

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That generous gesture would have given Nicky some brownie points. J P is a leading light in the annual organisation of the charity event in memory of his late, great friend, which has provided so much welcome help to good causes, never needed more than in today’s straightened times.

For Henderson, the sight of Constitution Hill effortlessly drawing away from his older, female stable companion to the tune of 12 lengths must have been received with a mixture of pride and not inconsiderable relief. It may also mean that the three-year stranglehold on the top spot in hurdling by mares is about to end.

The trainer’s percentage remained whatever it is now of the £89k for Newcastle, on top of his automatic share in another £92k over two days at Newbury principally. On Friday J P McManus’ Champ – perhaps just as well – held off the fabulous finish of old adversary Paisley Park in the Coral Long Distance Hurdle, a win augmented by impressive novice winner Jet Powered earlier.

On Saturday, smart bumper performer Luccia stepped up in a very competitive fillies’ novice hurdle with a flawless performance on debut, almost in the Constitution Hill class, and First Street also impressed in the graduation hurdle against high class opposition. To complete the borderline obscenely successful weekend, Touchy Feely was an appropriate winner for Seven Barrows at Doncaster.

I have two post-scripts to the “do”. Ben Pauling was hard to reach on Friday morning, and when, finally he was contactable, he explained how tired he had been, understandable in view of the fact he got home from lunch at 1 a.m., replicating the sort of irresponsible behaviour that many used to exhibit at the annual Horserace Writers’ Awards lunch in London.

That pre-Christmas staple goes on at Lancaster Gate next Monday and I have received a welcome and most unexpected invitation. I promise I will make it home before midnight. (The following Monday we have family tickets for Cinderella. I better get into practice!)

The other amusing incident concerned a random meeting in the gents, mid-lunch between Henderson and Not So Sleepy’s trainer, Hughie Morrison. Hughie relates: “He wasn’t interested how Sleepy would run, just whether we would knock over one or other of his horses at the start or at the first hurdle.

“He asked, “which way does he hang?”, to which I replied: “Wherever the other horse happens to be!” That hardly placated him but, obviously, on the day he was as good as he ever has been and ran a blinder. Then again, going into last year’s Champion Hurdle, Sleepy was the highest-rated UK hurdler and his latest Cesarewitch run shows how unwise it is ever to under-estimate him.”

Top male hurdlers do not have an alternative championship race at the Cheltenham Festival, so trainers not keen to take on the now 4-7 shot Constitution Hill in the Champion, must either grin and bear it or wait for the 2m5f Aintree Hurdle. The mares have a couple of options at Cheltenham, and it would not be a shock if Epatante looked elsewhere after this summary lesson from her younger colleague.

What intrigues me more is the Honeysuckle situation that confronts Henry De Bromhead. His mare is on 16 wins unbeaten with two Champion Hurdles on the board. Does she carry on regardless and try for the hat-trick in the knowledge that her toughest challenge and most talented rival awaits? Or does she slip into a mares’ race to extend the unbeaten record?

You might almost wish her to have a hiccup in one of her prep races on the way. Such as being carried out at the start or first hurdle – don’t suggest Not So Sleepy! - so that it wouldn’t be numerically quite so vital. Then again there would be no shame or stud career implications in 16 and a couple more unbeaten and a second to Constitution Hill. If she did beat him – partisan Irish delirium and equine fame for as long as horses race over jumps awaits her. I hope they will meet next March for the Big Showdown on Prestbury Hill.

It's the big races that inevitably attract the most attention and are vital for the major stables that they collect their share of them. Over the past few years, the Dan Skelton stable has made a conscious decision to reduce its summer activity for a corresponding increase in concentration on the top end.

As the horses came to the closing stages of the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday, Harry Skelton on his brother’s Le Milos was being vigorously pursued by two David Pipe-trained horses, Remastered and Gericault Rogue. Going to the last Gericault Rogue was seen to be tiring just as Remastered came on, seemingly about to atone for last season’s unlucky fall four from home when going like the probable winner.

Yet, hard as he strived, Le Milos found that little bit more to deny him. The £142,000 the horse brought his owners, the Jolly Good Partnership, tipped Skelton over the £1 million mark for the season, for the eighth time in succession. He has 54 wins to his credit.

That makes him the nearest to former boss Paul Nicholls, who had three victories over the Newbury weekend taking his tally to 70 and earnings of £1,161K. Most wins have been collected by Fergal O’Brien, nearer the old Skelton model with summer activity, but that alone cannot explain away 90 wins. It’s almost a rewind to the old Martin Pipe days.

Martin’s son has been doing extremely well this season already and despite missing the big one on Saturday, he’s now on a faster-than-recently 50 for the season. Had the Skelton horse departed at the last fence – not that anyone could have wished such an eventuality – Pipe would have been pushing £800k rather than £634k!

Nicky’s 35 wins so far have brought him neatly onto a shade over half a million and with the massive expectations of Constitution Hill, Luccia and novice chase prospect Jonbon, all set to clean up in their various categories barring mishap, he’ll be making up the ground rapidly from now on.

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Henderson agreed that the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton would be the obvious step for Constitution Hill, and that was the next step for his 2008 winner of the Fighting Fifth, which was run at Wetherby as Newcastle was off games.

At that time Ian Turner, now racing manager for the McNeill family, was the man behind a sponsorship offering a £1 million bonus for a horse that won all three races culminating in the Champion Hurdle.

Punjabi won that Wetherby leg and by coincidence Turner was at the Yorkshire track last week to see his boss’s hurdles debutant Spartan Army (£170k, ex-Joseph O’Brien) win impressively for Alan King. He looks a natural for the Triumph Hurdle although Gary Moore’s Leicester winner, Perseus Way, looks smart too.

As to the £1 million, Punjabi fell at Kempton before winning the Champion Hurdle. That cost owner Ray Tooth, his trainer and the stable staff a chunk of money! Were they bothered? Not once Punjabi and Barry Geraghty claimed the Festival showpiece at 33/1 they weren’t!

Finally, while we’re talking in terms of millions, congratulations to Ryan Moore who early yesterday morning won his second Japan Cup at Tokyo racecourse. Riding 7-2 third favourite, Vela Azul, a five-year-old stallion, he won the £2,593,463.46 to the winner race for trainer Kunihiko Watanabe and owners Carrot Farm Co Ltd in daring fashion. After his wonderful Breeders’ Cup meeting earlier in the month, this makes 2022 a year to treasure for the former champion.

- TS

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