Constitution Hill was 300 miles away at Newcastle, but racegoers at Newbury still burst into spontaneous applause as Nicky Henderson’s hurdler powered 12 lengths clear of the field on a tight rein in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle. It was the performance that all racing fans had dared to hope for on the five-year-old’s return to action after a brilliant, unbeaten first season over jumps.
Moments later, in the parade ring at Newbury, Henderson – who also trained the runner-up, Epatante – was already being asked whether Constitution Hill might be the greatest hurdler the sport has seen. “We need to keep all four feet on the ground,” Henderson replied, before adding: “I’m sad for Epatante, she’d have won it in any normal year, but this is a bit of a freak, he really is.”
The F-word is likely to be used freely whenever Constitution Hill goes to the track this season. Nico de Boinville decided to make the running on the 1-4 favourite and he travelled powerfully throughout while also hurdling like a veteran rather than a young horse with just three previous outings in the book.
When his rider let out a centimetre of rein between the final two flights, Constitution Hill surged clear of Epatante, the 2020 Champion Hurdle winner, before flying the last effortlessly and crossing the line with his rider still motionless. His 22-length success in last season’s Supreme Novice Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival was extraordinary, but Constitution Hill’s latest wide-margin victory bordered on the supernatural.
“What we saw last year, it looked pretty freakish. The stats said it was, the times said it was, everything said this is a freak,” Henderson said. “I was just worried it was going to be a silly tactical race today. I said to Nico, just go and enjoy yourself, you can do anything on this horse, he’s so versatile, his brain is so good.
“I think that’s half the beauty of him, his temperament. Last year, I was telling the tale of me ringing [the former jockey] Barry Geraghty and saying, I thought you told me this was a good horse. It’s asleep, it’s got nothing, he gets lapped at the walk and lapped at the trot.
“There’s nothing exciting. If I pulled out 30 horses and he was in the middle of them, you wouldn’t pick him out in a million years. But he’s so wonderfully geared in his head that you can do whatever you like, make the running, drop him in, it doesn’t matter. He just does it for you.”
Constitution Hill was an 11-8 chance for the Champion Hurdle in March in the morning but the bookies flipped the numbers around before he had even returned to unsaddle and he is now top-priced at 8-11 to deny Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle (9-2) in a race she he has won impressively for the last two seasons. Honeysuckle is unbeaten in 16 starts and will get a 7lb mares’ allowance from Constitution Hill at Cheltenham but is still certain to set off as second-favourite.
Attention will now turn to Constitution Hill’s pre-Festival build-up, which could include an outing at Christmas in either the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown on 29 December or the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park three days earlier.
Honeysuckle, meanwhile, is expected to reappear in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse next weekend and has gone straight to the Irish Champion Hurdle in February in the last two seasons.
“We look forward to that,” Henderson said of meeting Honeysuckle. “I think everybody would like us to meet in March and let that be the decider.”
In the big race of the day at Newbury, Le Milos, the 9-2 favourite, held off the late challenge of Remastered by half a length to win the Coral Gold Cup for Harry and Dan Skelton. L’Homme Presse, meanwhile, underlined his claim to be a serious Cheltenham Gold Cup contender with a cosy win under top weight in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle. He is now 7-1 second favourite for the Gold Cup, behind Galopin Des Champs at 11-4.