Tag Archive for: Epatante

2023 Fighting Fifth Hurdle Trends

Sponsored by leading bookmaker Betfair, the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth hurdle is staged at Newcastle racecourse.

Having first been run in 1969 the contest is often seen as an early-season trial for the Champion Hurdle, with the Nicky Henderson-trained Punjabi (2008) and Buveur D'Air (2018) the last horses to win both races in the same season.

The 2017 and 2018 Champion Hurdle winner – Buveur d’Air – landed this race in 2017 before going onto Cheltenham glory again in March 2018, while he also took the prize in 2018 and was second in 2019.

In 2022 we saw the exciting Constitution Hill romp to victory by 12 lengths - beating the two-time past winner Epatante, before going onto win the Champion Hurdle later that season.

Here at GEEGEEZ, we are on hand as he looks back at past winners and gives you the key trends to look out for ahead of the 2023 renewal – this year run on Saturday 2nd December.

Recent Fighting Fifth Hurdle Winners

2022 – CONSTITUTION HILL (1/4 fav)
2021 – EPATANTE (11/8) / NOT SO SLEEPY (18/1), Dead heat
2020 - EPATANTE (8/11 fav)
2019 – CORNERSTONE LAD (16/1)
2018 – BUVEUR D’AIR (11/8)
2017 – BUVEUR D’AIR (1/6 fav)
2016 – IRVING (6/1)
2015 – IDENTITY THIEF (6/1)
2014 – IRVING (6/4 fav)
2013 – MY TENT OR YOURS (8/11 fav)
2011 – OVERTURN (7/4)
2010 – PEDDLERS CROSS (9/4)
2009 – GO NATIVE (25/1)
2008 – PUNJABI (8/11 fav)
2007 – HARCHIBALD (4/1)
2006 – STRAW BEAR (Evs fav)
2005 – ARCALIS (9/4 fav)
2004 – HARCHIBALD (9/4 jfav)
2003 – THE FRENCH FURZE (25/1)
2002 – INTERSKY FALCON (11/10 fav)

Fighting Fifth Hurdle Betting Trends & Stats

22/22 – Won a hurdles race over at least 2m before
19/22 – Won at least a Grade 2 hurdle before
19/22 – Finished in the first two in their latest race
18/22 – Won at least 4 times over hurdles before
18/22 – Placed favourites
17/22 – Officially rated 151 or higher
14/22 – Won their last race
12/22 – Ran within the last 6 weeks
11/22 – Favourites that won (1 joint)
7/22 – Raced over hurdles at Newcastle before
7/22 - Trained by Nicky Henderson (7 of last 15)
6/22 – Won by an Irish bred horse
4/22 – Won by an Irish based yard
4/22 – Won by a previous winner of the race
2/22 - Trained by Paul Nicholls (2 of last 9)
The average winning SP in the last 22 runnings is 11/2

Note: The 2008 renewal was staged at Wetherby, and the 2010 race at Newbury



Henderson duo added to Mares’ Hurdle field

Nicky Henderson has supplemented Epatante and Theatre Glory to take on Honeysuckle in a fascinating renewal of the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle beat Benie Des Dieux in an epic running of the Grade One contest in 2020 before going on to claim back-to-back victories against the boys in the Champion Hurdle.

But having suffered defeat for the first time in her bid for a fourth Hatton’s Grace in December, and proved no match for State Man in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle, the nine-year-old is set to go back against her own sex in an attempt to end her career with a fourth Festival success.

Like Honeysuckle, the 2020 Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante retains a entry in this year’s Champion following Wednesday’s confirmation stage.

However, she has proved no match for stablemate and red-hot Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill in either the Fighting Fifth or the Christmas Hurdle this season and, as expected, she has been added to the Mares’ Hurdle field at a cost of £4,599 following an impressive recent victory at Doncaster.

Connections of Theatre Glory have also stumped up the same figure following her runaway success in a Listed event at Warwick on her latest outing.

Henderson has a potential third string to his bow in the form of last year’s winner Marie’s Rock, but she also has the option of stepping up in trip for the Stayers’ Hurdle two days later.

Love Envoi is a leading contender for Harry Fry, while Willie Mullins has whittled his Mares’ Hurdle team down to Brandy Love, Echoes In Rain and Shewearsitwell.

Midnight Ginger (Andrew Martin) and Queens Brook (Gordon Elliott) are the other hopefuls.

Facile Vega heads the betting for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Facile Vega heads the betting for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Donall Farmer/PA)

Twenty horses have stood their ground for the traditional Festival curtain-raiser – the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Ante-post favourite Facile Vega heads a seven-strong Mullins squad that also includes Il Etait Temps, Impaire Et Passe and Gaelic Warrior, although several have alternative engagements during the week.

Backers of Barry Connell’s Marine Nationale and the Joseph O’Brien-trained High Definition will pleased to see that pair also remain in the mix.

El Fabiolo and Jonbon are the top two in the betting for the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy, for which a total of 12 horses are still entered.

Mullins-trained Irish Arkle winner El Fabiolo could be joined by a trio of stablemates in Dysart Dynamo, Ha d’Or and Saint Roi, while Henderson’s Jonbon is very much the pick of the home team.

Fanion D’Estruval heads 37 in the mix for the Ultima Handicap Chase, with Lucinda Russell excited to saddle the defending champion Corach Rambler.

The nine-year-old is only 6lb higher in the weights than when striking Festival gold 12 months ago and has been kept fresh since finishing fourth in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury in November.

“Corach has Scu (Peter Scudamore, trainer’s partner) around his little finger,” said the trainer.

“He’s great. He’s had plenty of work. Although he hasn’t run since Newbury, we’ve given him a racecourse gallop and I’m quite excited about taking him back to the Ultima.

“I know he’s 6lb higher, but he seems in great form. He’s light enough, he’s strong enough and I’m looking forward to the day with him.

“I loved his run in the Coral Gold Cup. All we wanted was to get a good run and that was going to give us an idea about what we were going to do for the rest of the year, but he ran above my expectations.”

The well-fancied pair of Tekao and Byker are among 37 juveniles going forward for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, but recent Adonis Hurdle winner Nusret is a notable absentee.

The last of seven races on day one is the Wellchild National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase. Gaillard Du Mesnil is a hot favourite for the Mullins team and will face a maximum of 12 rivals, including two fellow Closutton inmates in Ramillies and Tenzing.

Henderson eager to maximise Festival firepower

Nicky Henderson appears increasingly keen to split Epatante and Marie’s Rock at the Cheltenham Festival after seeing his two top-class mares enjoy a racecourse gallop at Kempton on Tuesday morning.

The JP McManus-owned Epatante won the Champion Hurdle three years ago and has been placed behind Honeysuckle in each of the past two seasons.

However, she has been left trailing in the wake of stablemate Constitution Hill in both the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle this season and rather than taking him on again in a fortnight’s time, she could be supplemented for another likely clash with Honeysuckle in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Marie’s Rock won the Mares’ Hurdle for the Seven Barrows team last year – but after seeing her work around Kempton’s all-weather circuit, Henderson hinted he is leaning towards allowing her to step up to three miles and take on the boys in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Nico de Boinville aboard Marie's Rock at Kempton
Nico de Boinville aboard Marie’s Rock at Kempton (Zac Goodwin/PA)

“The only thing that would be up for discussion now – and I think this (workout) gives Nico (de Boinville) and myself a bit more of a clue – is Marie’s Rock,” said the trainer.

“I’ll talk to Tom Palin (of owners Middleham Park Racing) and we’ll have a look at the Stayers’ Hurdle. Nico was very pleased with her and Aidan (Coleman) was very pleased with Epatante. She isn’t technically in both (the Champion Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle), but she could go for either.

“JP will decide what he wants to do, but if Epatante went to the Mares’ Hurdle, I could see a very good reason for Marie’s Rock moving up to three miles in the Stayers’ Hurdle as that’s what that snapshot was telling us there.

“That scenario would suit me but it isn’t about me, it’s about trying to do the best we can for each individual horse. It does realistically give all three of them a shot of winning a race. It just feels a little bit like common sense after watching what was happening today.

“I thought Epatante was great and she’s in very good form within herself. She’s quite big but she didn’t have a big blow.”

Jonbon and Aidan Coleman at Kempton
Jonbon and Aidan Coleman at Kempton (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Other Henderson inmates to strut their stuff at Kempton included leading Arkle Trophy hope Jonbon (Coleman) and possible Turners’ Novices’ Chase runner Balco Coastal (De Boinville).

Henderson added: “Jonbon was good and he did get warm today, but that’s why things like this do him good.

“Balco Coastal worked very well and I’m thinking about the Turners for him. I do think we can have him sharper than what he was at Sandown (when second in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase).”

Meanwhile, Henderson confirmed that the long-absent Buzz is highly unlikely to be part of his Cheltenham Festival squad.

The dual-purpose star won the Cesarewitch at Newmarket and Ascot Hurdle in quick succession in the autumn of 2021, but has been off the track since after fracturing his pelvis the day before an intended outing in the Long Walk Hurdle.

Buzz is very much back on the road to recovery, but Henderson feels a tilt at the Stayers’ Hurdle could be a bridge too far at this stage.

He said: “The only one who probably won’t go to Cheltenham is Buzz and I’ll probably concentrate on Aintree and possibly the Flat.

“He’s in very good form and is doing plenty of work. I was talking to the owners over the weekend and I don’t think that going three miles over hurdles on your first run for a year and a half is really a very sensible thing to be doing.”

No rush to commit to Cheltenham target with Marie’s Rock

Nicky Henderson is likely to make a late call on whether Marie’s Rock runs in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle or steps up in trip for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Winner of the Mares’ Hurdle last season, she beat the boys on her only outing to date this term in the Relkeel, but she has yet to run over three miles.

“Marie’s Rock is in very, very good form. There is a question with Marie’s Rock and it is definitely possible she can move up and run in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” said Henderson.

“Tom Palin (of owners Middleham Park) and I have discussed it and no doubt we will discuss a lot more. It certainly won’t be a decision we’ll make in the near future and we’ll just have to wait and see.

“I know she hasn’t run over three miles, but she won very well in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day. She’s stayed well both times she has won at Cheltenham, she flies up the hill and I thought she was very impressive on New Year’s Day. She’s fit, fresh and well and all things are ready to go and we will have to consider.

“The horse who won yesterday (Blazing Khal), I don’t know the horse at all to be honest with you and there are a few around at the moment – Gordon’s horse (Teahupoo), he looks the best I’ve seen. You have got to always respect old Paisley Park. They are not bad but there is no standout.

“Now in the Mares’ you are going to have Epatante, you are going to have Honeysuckle, you might even have Theatre Glory. So there is a bit to be said for at least considering the Stayers’, but we can sit on that and the ground might have a good bit to do with it.”

Theatre Glory is also trained by Henderson and was very impressive at Warwick on Saturday.

Theatre Glory has improved markedly with each outing this term
Theatre Glory has improved markedly with each outing this term (Tim Goode/PA)

He said: “Theatre Glory would want really good ground. She has to be supplemented as does Epatante, but you can take it they are intended runners.

“I’ve said from the beginning when it appeared Epatante hadn’t been entered, she should be treated as a runner for betting purposes because it’s 50-50 whether she goes Champion Hurdle or Mares’. Just because she’s not in the race, doesn’t mean she won’t run. She can be in the race and so could Theatre Glory.”

Epatante’s options are another crack at the Champion Hurdle which she won in 2020 or to take on her own sex.

“Epatante has run once over two and a half miles at Aintree and she stayed very well, she won very easily that day,” said Henderson.

Nicky Henderson and Epatante on Monday morning
Nicky Henderson and Epatante on Monday morning (David Davies/PA)

“It was great to see her win like that at Doncaster the other day, it was very impressive. I know she beat nothing but at least she has shown what Constitution Hill is beating.

“What she showed the other day is how good Constitution Hill is, given he keeps slamming her and then she can come out and beat her own playmates as easily as that. I thought she was superb the other day and she jumped excellently.”

Should she run in the Mares’ Hurdle she will face Honeysuckle, who has beaten her in the Champion the last two seasons.

“I can see their point to be fair. Both her runs this year would suggest she is just not quite where she was last year and I think an extra half a mile is going to help her, so I think it is the sensible thing to do,” Henderson said of the decision to keep Honeysuckle to her own sex.

“Having got a couple of mares of our own, I think I would have preferred her in the Champion Hurdle, but she’s been great and really great for the game.

“Most people would like to see her go out in a blaze of glory winning the Mares’. I’m afraid I’m probably one of the only people who wouldn’t find that so popular.”

Henderson is still leaning towards running Luccia in the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle despite her impressive display at Exeter on Sunday.

She holds an entry in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, for which she would get a 7lb mares’ allowance, but Henderson would need convincing to roll the dice.

The fact she is around 10-1 for the Supreme and 7-4 favourite for the Mares’ Novices’ is also weighing on Henderson’s mind.

“Luccia ought to go for the Mares’. She was impressive yesterday. Nico (de Boinville) was tempted by the Supreme but the betting tells you what you’ve got to do, surely?” said Henderson.

“You don’t have to decide yet. We did put her in it, which I thought was ambitious at the time anyway. I would be in favour of sticking to the Mares’ I must admit.

“Paul (Sandy, owner) and I will have a chat nearer the time and if there was a forfeit stage tomorrow we’d leave her in, but I can’t believe you’d throw away the Mares’. I’m not saying she will win that, but at least you know you’ve a very good chance of having a winner.

“I do like having the winner of the Supreme because it sets you up for the rest of the week, but we haven’t anything else so we’ll see. I’ll have a look but I can’t believe it’s the right thing to do.

“In the years of Altior and Shishkin, we were heading to the Supreme with confidence. I couldn’t come out and say we thought we’d win, but I remember in Min’s year all we heard was Min, Min Min and I just thought ‘good luck because you won’t beat Altior’. I couldn’t say that about Luccia.”

Henderson expects Leopardstown events to make Cheltenham picture clearer

Nicky Henderson expects to have a clearer idea of who will prove the main danger to Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle after this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival.

Constitution Hill is unbeaten under rules, making light work of a string of Grade One races when winning by facile margins, with the six-year-old a hot favourite at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle has dominated the contest in the past three seasons but after losing her undefeated record to Teahupoo at Fairyhouse in December, she is on a redemption mission as she clashes with Willie Mullins’ State Man in Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.

Constitution Hill winning at the Cheltenham Festival last year
Constitution Hill winning at the Cheltenham Festival last year (Mike Egerton/PA)

Henderson expects the contest to provide a better picture of the Champion Hurdle field and further inform his decision on where to send Epatante, winner of the race in 2020 before being placed behind Honeysuckle for the past two years.

Epatante was well beaten by Constitution Hill in both the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle, but landed a Grade Two mares’ event at Doncaster by six and a half lengths last week.

Speaking to Sky Sports Racing, Henderson said of Constitution Hill: “The only thing that’s really happened since the Christmas Hurdle that would encourage you is that Epatante, who has been running round and finishing quite a way behind him on the last two occasions, comes out and, admittedly against much, much weaker opposition, but in a Grade Two hurdle last Saturday she won as far as she liked.

“That actually proves that Constitution Hill has been beating something, that’s about the only thing that has changed since Christmas.

“Epatante will go for the Mares’ Hurdle or the Champion Hurdle, I haven’t spoken much to JP (McManus, owner) about that but she proved she stayed two and a half (miles) and won really nicely at Aintree last year.

Epatante at Doncaster
Epatante at Doncaster (Richard Sellers/PA)

“We’ll see what JP wants to do, you’ve got Epatante there as a back up if Constitution needs a back up. That’s going to be very interesting, to see what happens this weekend and see how they all get on.

“Honeysuckle and Willie’s horse (State Man) will tell us quite a lot and I think the decision on Epatante will probably be made as a result of what we see there.”

Henderson is also expecting the Arkle field to take shape after the Dublin Racing Festival, with the current favourite Jonbon set to head to Warwick for the Grade Two Kingmaker before preparing for the Festival in March.

Jonbon heads the Arkle market
Jonbon heads the Arkle market (Steven Paston/PA)

“Jonbon is in good form, he worked yesterday and will school tomorrow,” he said.

“He’s on course for Warwick, he’s in great shape actually. He just wants one more run, he’s had a nice freshen up since the Henry VIII and hopefully this will put him right for the Arkle.

“We will be watching quite carefully, the good thing is that Constitution Hill and Jonbon don’t have televisions in their boxes so they won’t know what’s going on!”

Epatante in cruise control for confidence-boosting triumph at Doncaster

Nicky Henderson’s 2020 champion hurdler Epatante had no trouble in getting back to winning ways dropped in class for the Sky Bet Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle.

A multiple Grade One winner against the boys, she has found life tough this season – taking on her esteemed stablemate Constitution Hill in both the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles.

With races at Cheltenham and Haydock called off in recent weeks due to the adverse weather she was back in against her sex at Doncaster and the red-hot 2-9 favourite to oblige.

Nico de Boinville – on board for the first time since winning the 2021 Christmas Hurdle on her – never had a moment of worry and let her off the leash approaching the last on the way to a six-and a-half-length win from Salsada.

“She felt great today, jumped really well and travelled away great, it’s nice for her to pick one up like this,” said De Boinville.

“It gives you an idea how good Constitution Hill is, but the team at home had her in really good shape for this today.

“Aidan (Coleman) said she felt fantastic at Kempton and she did today, it will be interesting to she where they decide to go at Cheltenham.”

Nico de Boinville and Rachel McMahon with Epatante
Nico de Boinville and Rachel McMahon with Epatante (Richard Sellers/PA)

Rachel McMahon rides the mare every day, but is currently out of action, as she explained.

“A horse called Love Bite bit my finger and broke it,” she said.

“I’d normally ride her every day and we’d love a few more like her, she’s so tough and her main aim today was to get her confidence back.

“It could be worse, Constitution Hill could be in another yard. You’d think getting beaten out of sight by him would have sickened her off, but not a bit of it.

“I think she’s certainly as good as last year and without him she’d have won another two Grade Ones.”

Give Me A Cuddle (blue) forges to the front
Give Me A Cuddle (blue) forges to the front (Richard Sellers/PA)

De Bonville had already won on Give Me A Cuddle (15-2) in the first division of the Happy 60th Birthday Neil Young Handicap Hurdle.

It was a welcome winner for Neil King who had endured a very quiet start tot he season.

Good Bye was rewarded for a string of consistent efforts when streaking away with the first division.

The Sara Ender-trained winner was sent off 7-1 under Philip Armson.

Ender said: “He’s a star, he’s never been out of the first four since we got him but he usually doesn’t want to go past!

“We’ve just sweetened him up a bit and the past few weeks his confidence has grown and grown.

“The only time he’d won for us before today was because a loose horse helped him up the run-in! Today is the first time he’s wanted to go and do it on his own.”

De Boinville expecting Epantante to bloom in Yorkshire Rose

Nico de Boinville is confident Epatante can make the most of what appears a gilt-edged opportunity in the Sky Bet Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster on Saturday.

Nicky Henderson’s stable jockey has actually only ridden the yard’s star mare once before – steering her to victory in the 2021 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Aidan Coleman has been ever present in the saddle since then, but as he is at Cheltenham to partner veteran stayer Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle, De Boinville again gets the call on Town Moor.

Epatante has won six times at Grade One level in all, with two Christmas Hurdles, two Fighting Fifths, an Aintree Hurdle and a Champion Hurdle featuring on her CV.

The JP McManus-owned nine-year-old has proved no match for fellow Seven Barrows inmate Constitution Hill in either the Fighting Fifth or the Christmas Hurdle so far this season, but with her esteemed stable companion not in opposition this weekend, she should take all the beating.

“She doesn’t have a certain Constitution Hill to contend with here, so you have to be more than hopeful she can get back to winning ways,” De Boinville said in his Unibet blog.

“We all know her Grade One class and the scary thing is that she probably hasn’t been that far off her very best when chasing home her stablemate at Newcastle and Kempton this season.

“This is clearly a significant drop in grade for her, for all she carries a 6lb penalty.”

The biggest threat to Epatante appears to be Lucy Wadham’s admirable mare Martello Sky.

Martello Sky in action at Cheltenham
Martello Sky in action at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

The grey has found one too good in each of her three previous outings this season, most recently chasing home Love Envoi at Sandown, and is fitted with cheek pieces for the first time on Saturday.

Wadham said: “Epatante has won six Grade Ones and is only giving us 2lb, so obviously it’s going to be to be pretty tough and we’re probably playing for second place.

“As always she’ll be doing her best, she’s ready to run and we’ll give it a go, but we’re not expecting to beat the favourite that’s for sure.

“She’s coming back to two miles and, funnily enough, all her sisters wore some sort of headgear. She’s certainly not ungenuine, but I think she will need to be sharper on Saturday, so hopefully the cheek pieces will help.”

The first of three Grade Twos on the card is the MND Association Race For Research Lightning Novices’ Chase, in which Harry Fry’s Boothill bids to follow up victory in the Wayward Lad at Kempton.

The highest-rated horse in the field, though, is Ann Hamilton’s stable star Tommy’s Oscar, who won on his chasing debut at Carlisle in the autumn and has since finished second twice over fences.

The eight-year-old is significantly better off at the weights with Donald McCain’s Since Day One, who is again in opposition having beaten him in a novice handicap at Newcastle last month, but connections are more hopeful than confident about his chances this weekend.

“At the weights you’d say he’s got to win it, but I don’t know,” said owner Ian Hamilton.

“He was obviously well beaten in the Fighting Fifth and then he was giving a stone and a half to Donald’s horse last time,” said owner Ian Hamilton..

“Our horses aren’t quite firing, so I wouldn’t have £1,000 on him anyway. But it will be better ground at Doncaster which will help. Hopefully he can do it.”

Stay Away Fay is the likely favourite for the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle.

A £305,000 purchase after winning a point-to-point, the Shantou gelding made a successful debut for Paul Nicholls in a two-and-a-half-mile novice hurdle at Newbury in November and is immediately stepped up to three miles.

Nicholls told Betfair: “He’s an interesting prospect who did well over the summer before winning in pleasing fashion at Newbury on his debut for us over hurdles two months ago.

“He is a lot sharper now, stays well, wants good ground and I’ve had this race in mind for him since Newbury.”

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles Idalko Bihoue at Doncaster
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles Idalko Bihoue at Doncaster (David Davies/PA)

McCain’s Maximilian steps back up in distance after suffering his first defeat in five starts in the Winter Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown last month, while Grand Soir has won his last three races for Irish trainer John McConnell.

Idalko Bihoue, another expensive purchase from the Irish point field, is also worthy of consideration after finishing a creditable third in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury on New Year’s Eve.

“It was a very good run in the Challow. He’s going up in distance a little bit and I’d hope he’ll run really well,” trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies told Sky Sports Racing.

“We were looking for three miles, there are very few three-mile races around and it’s good prize-money.

“He’s definitely a stayer.”

Epatante has chance to get back to winning ways at Haydock

With stablemate Constitution Hill safely tucked away in his box, Epatante appears to have been found an excellent opportunity to get back to winning ways in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday.

The JP McManus-owned mare is clearly no slouch, with a Champion Hurdle, an Aintree Hurdle, two Christmas Hurdles and two Fighting Fifth Hurdles already in her satchel.

She has proved no match for the magnificent Constitution Hill in either the Fighting Fifth or the Christmas Hurdle so far this season, beaten 12 lengths at Newcastle and 17 at Kempton. But she was comfortably best of the rest on both occasions and is odds-on for this weekend’s Grade Two assignment.

Henderson told Unibet: “I think for all of us the ground is a bit of a worry but there’s nothing we can do about it and at the moment we just have to take what we can.

“She isn’t a gigantic mare but has won on soft ground before so you’d like to think she’ll at least get through it and she’s been in good form at home. She’s been ticking over nicely and this is a good opportunity to give her the chance of winning a race after bumping into Constitution Hill all season.

“It would just be lovely to get her head back in front again and give her some confidence.”

He added: “She had a terrific season last year, winning three Grade Ones, so owes us absolutely nothing, but she still retains all her ability and (for her) it’s a shame a certain horse owned by Michael Buckley has come on the scene because she would’ve already won two Grade Ones this season and likely be favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle!”

The highest-rated horse in the field is Jason The Militant, who makes his debut for Phil Kirby after being bought out of Henry de Bromhead’s yard.

The nine-year-old, who won at Grade Three and Grade Two level over hurdles, has also been declared for Lingfield on Sunday – but looks set to head for Merseyside provided the meeting goes ahead.

Kirby said: “He’s settled in grand and he’s been very straightforward. He’s done everything he’s been asked to do and we were hoping for some soft ground this weekend. It looks like we’ve got it, so we just need the racing to be on somewhere.

“We’ve had him around a month or so. He’s an older horse so he was perhaps ready for a change of scenery. We’re going to try and freshen him back up and try and get him somewhere back to where he was.

“He hasn’t been running badly though and he’s almost exclusively been running in top-level races. He’s a lovely horse and he’s got a nice rating, so these are the races he’s got to run in really.”

I Like To Move It won Greatwood Hurdle in November for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies, but needs to bounce back from a disappointing effort in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day.

I Like To Move It won the Greatwood Hurdle earlier this season
I Like To Move It won the Greatwood Hurdle earlier this season (Tim Goode/PA)

High-class chaser Minella Drama is an interesting contender – switching back to hurdles for the first time since finishing second in a Grade One novice race at Aintree in the spring of 2021.

“I had him in the Peter Marsh and I was tempted, but it’s three-mile-two, and I had him the Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield on Sunday, but with his Grade Two penalty he was giving weight to horses rated higher than him,” said trainer Donald McCain.

“It’s always kind of been in my head, is he a better chaser than a hurdler? I know this is a Champion Hurdle trial, but he goes on the ground and he likes the track and he’s in good nick.

“On his last run over hurdles he was second in a Grade One and we’ve done it before in this race (with Navajo Pass in 2021), so we thought we’d give it another go.”

Nells Son (Nicky Richards) and For Pleasure (Alex Hales) complete the line-up.

Epatante ‘still a possible’ for Mares’ Hurdle after Henderson mistake

Nicky Henderson believes Epatante must be treated as “still a possible runner” in the Mares’ Hurdle – despite her not featuring among the initial entries for the Cheltenham Festival contest.

The winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2020 before placing behind Honeysuckle the following two years, Epatante has been given the option of a third crack at stablemate Constitution Hill as one of 17 to put their name in the hat for the Unibet Champion Hurdle on March 14.

But Henderson admitted she should also have been given an entry for the mares-only Grade One 40 minutes later on the opening day card and is keen to point out the supplementary system gives her just as much chance of lining-up in that contest as the Champion Hurdle – and therefore should still be considered as a potential runner for betting purposes

He said: “She should have been entered, she was meant to be entered and as far as everyone is concerned she is still a possible runner because she can be supplemented.

“She should have been entered, it was my mistake, which is embarrassing.

“She is still a possible runner in the Mares’ Hurdle. Just because she is not in it, doesn’t mean she can’t run in it and she has got as much chance of running in it this afternoon as she had this morning.”

He continued: “The supplementary system is very good and she can still be supplemented, therefore she should be considered as an entry in my opinion. It’s my mistake and I apologise, but she should not be excluded from the betting in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson and Epatante during the visit to Nicky Henderson’s yard at Seven Barrows in Lambourn, Berkshire
Nicky Henderson and Epatante during the visit to Nicky Henderson’s yard at Seven Barrows in Lambourn, Berkshire (Tim Goode/PA)

“Now I have no idea what race the intention of running in is, she should have been entered in both and she will run in one of the two, god willing. I can’t say which it will be because we don’t know and we wouldn’t know even if she had the entries for both races.

“But she must be considered as if she has been entered (for the Mares’), because we can supplement her at the five-day stage and we will do so if that is the race we want.”

Henderson, who is the Champion Hurdle’s leading trainer, could also be represented by Gerry Feilden winner First Street in the opening day feature while the Seven Barrows handler’s only other possible for the Mares’ Hurdle is defending champion Marie’s Rock, who is the current market leader at a best price of 5-2.

(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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Monday Musings: Of Hughie’s Fighting Fifty-Fourth…

They could have done a better job of it. After all, the two ITV racing presenters, Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani, on Saturday sitting in their studio at Newbury and principally watching the Ladbrokes (morally the Hennessy) Trophy Chase did have some high-grade professional help, writes Tony Stafford.

You would have thought Ruby Walsh, normally the best race reader among television pundits who knows exactly where every rider and horse are throughout every race, jumps or flat, and Sir Anthony McCoy would have known better.

Their preamble to the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at snowy, windy Newcastle was restricted by its proximity to Newbury’s feature, but A P found plenty of time to laud former Champion Hurdler Epatante and, after the thrilling finish, praise Nicky Henderson for getting her back in top shape.

It was a fan club all round rather than an objective appraisal and they got half their wish, Epatante clinging on for a share of the £88k combined first and second prizes. I’ll come to her co-star in a moment, after saying there was plenty of mention in the short time available beforehand for Paul Nicholls’ second favourite Monmiral, evergreen Sceau Royal, and the striking grey, Silver Streak.

One name missing from their deliberations was that of Not So Sleepy, making his return to jumping following an unplaced effort at Aintree after a much better fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle, two places and just over three lengths behind Epatante but ahead of Silver Streak.

As such, these were the first three home-trained finishers in Honeysuckle’s first Champion Hurdle and, Buzz apart if he takes the shorter route, there isn’t too much around that will obviously subvert their position come March. Neither, on the evidence of yesterday’s outstanding Hatton’s Grace hat-trick by the Champion, will the now 13-race unbeaten record for the mare be challenged seriously any day soon.

Saturday’s partisan attitude would be understandable if Epatante was still being considered as having a chance to avenge her defeat, but it is routine enough for serious Champion Hurdle contenders to begin their season at Newcastle. Nicky Henderson has achieved more mind-boggling feats of a revivalist nature than this. She really must be the apple of A P’s eye. It certainly sounded it.

Now seven years of age, J P McManus’ mare is the veteran of 14 races and nine victories, the first two coming from three runs as a three-year-old in AQPS Flat races in her native France.

Not So Sleepy has also won nine races, four on the Flat and five over hurdles for owner-breeder Lady Blyth and trainer Hughie Morrison. He is rising double digits in age, a factor that never phases Morrison who can always point to the victory of his ten-year-old gelding Alcazar in the 2005 Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp, a race in which the second and third home were respectively six years and seven his junior.

Not So Sleepy has had an unusual as well as a lengthy career for a high-class dual performer. He won first time out in October of 2014 as a juvenile over a mile and half a furlong at Nottingham. First time out at three, he was the narrow winner of Chester’s Dee Stakes, a Listed race but perhaps one long overdue a re-grading.

Successful before Not So Sleepy were Derby winners Oath (1999) and Kris Kin (2003), while since then, future Irish 2,000 Guineas and Breeders’ Cup winner Magical and the multiple Group 1-winning Circus Maximus (2019) have also won the race.

I was with the Oath team at the time and, forgive the after time, managed to get a nice price about Oath’s following up at Epsom from Simon Clare, Corals’ course rep at the time. If you think Not So Sleepy is long-lasting, then the same Mr Clare was presenting the prizes on behalf of Saturday’s sponsors to connections of Cloudy Glen who won the Ladbroke Trophy in the colours of the late Trevor Hemmings. Simon hardly looks a day older and deserves congratulations for the way he has sailed serenely through all the mergers and takeovers that have been so prevalent in the world’s biggest betting organisations.

The Chester 2015 win for Not So Sleepy understandably brought a reaction from the handicapper and he started life in that sphere on 107. Equally unsurprisingly, wins proved elusive and it was not until his 17th career run, on Oaks Day 2017, more than two years later, that he won a ten-furlong handicap off 98 under Adam Kirby.

Another 18 months were destined to pass with continued struggle meaning that not until January 19th 2019, after he had run 32 times, did Morrison experiment with hurdles. Sleepy ran three times, fourth running free at Kempton, then winning unchallenged at Wincanton before proving much too exuberant on a return to the West Country track where he finished a well beaten fifth of eight.

Back on the Flat and still with a mark in the 90’s, that summer he had a programme of six runs culminating with an excellent fourth of 30 to Stratum in the Cesarewitch. Here is where the Morrison imagination stepped in. Clearly believing a hurdles mark of 122 would be manageable given the jumping and the tearaway tendencies could be overcome, Morrison lined up an Ascot handicap that November. He bolted in and, a month later and raised just 5lb, he ran away with the £85k to the winner Ladbroke Hurdle back at Ascot on only his fifth jumping appearance.

Not So Sleepy was as a result one of the favourites for that season’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but after a couple of false starts he found himself on the wide outside of the massive field and was hampered at the start, losing all chance. His 15th of 24 was disappointing but not enough to dissuade connections of a Champion Hurdle challenge. This soon fizzled out as Epatante strode home up the hill to a popular success.

Back on the Flat he polished off a little race over a mile and a half in late summer at Pontefract under Graham Lee, the prelude to another fourth place in the Cesarewitch, as Willie Mullins completed a hat-trick in the great Autumn staying race.

That was the ideal preparation for another jumps campaign. Unfortunately in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle he set off in front but unseated Johnny Burke at the first hurdle. Chastened, Hughie and Lady Blyth sent him to more familiar surroundings of Ascot where he delivered win number two in the Ladbroke.

This time, it was doubly satisfying as Buzz, a horse Hughie had nurtured (I used that word about their relationship last week and I still like the sound of it!) through his early career but had been whisked off by connections to Nicky Henderson for jumping, could get no nearer than second.

Buzz, two years his junior, was well ahead of Not So Sleepy later on when second at Aintree and he has since won the Cesarewitch, denying Mullins a fourth consecutive win in the race by beating Burning Victory and then the Coral Hurdle this month.

Although only fifth in the Champion Hurdle of 2021, Not So Sleepy far exceeded his handicap mark. At the time he was 7lb clear lowest in the entire field on 149, raised briefly to 155 before Aintree but again down to 152 for Saturday.

Again in a big race, he improved on anything he had done before. Epatante had been dropped to 154 after last season’s Champion Hurdle, but she received 7lb from the geldings on Saturday. Sceau Royal, another length and a half back in third and fourth-placed Silver Streak were both on 158 while the disappointing Monmiral is rated 153.

After Sceau Royal the gaps were six and a half and then eight and a half lengths. It seems inevitable that Not So Sleepy should be raised to at least 158, so his highest-ever figure will have been achieved as a rising ten-year-old. Not many trainers could manage that!

As to the way the race evolved, the complete outsider Voix Du Reve, Not So Sleepy and the grey Silver Streak formed the leading trio all the way round with the others grouping behind them.

One acknowledgement of Not So Sleepy’s performance was forthcoming afterwards, one of the experts saying he had been in the lead group but still rallied at the end.

My contention is that had he bothered to jump either of the last two flights properly, he would probably have won outright, and the verve with which he battled back, running in between the other pair up the run-in after the second mistake, spoke volumes.

Tough doesn’t cover it and when you consider how most of the way round with his unusual head motion out to the right between the jumps, you got the feeling he was playing rather than racing in a championship race, that is doubly valid.

I don’t suppose as a ten-year-old he will end the trainer’s Champion Hurdle blank – and something would need to cause Honeysuckle to miss the race on yesterday’s showing. Yet as long ago as 2002, Marble Arch, another of his Ladbroke Hurdle winners the previous December, finished second to Hors La Loi in the Champion Hurdle with a very youthful Ruby Walsh in the saddle.

Hughie is on target for his usual tally of around 50 Flat wins but at a markedly highest-ever strike rate of 18%. It is widely accepted he can train anything - juveniles, champion sprinters, middle-distance stars or top stayers. Indeed if he hadn’t come up against a future Irish St Leger winner, Sonnyboyliston, running off a gift mark in the Ebor, he would have easily beaten his best prizemoney tally too.

And what of Not So Sleepy, a veteran of 54 races, yet sound as a pound and honest – if quirky – as the day is long? He no doubt will continue to thrill and entertain us hopefully for a year or two to come. Maybe after Newcastle A P and Ruby will give him a little more pre-race respect next time he turns up when they are on the telly!

- TS