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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Hurdles or fences for Constitution Hill?

Rachael Blackmore salutes the crowd after Honeysuckle's Mares Hurdle winRachael Blackmore salutes the crowd after Honeysuckle's Mares Hurdle win
© Photo Healy Racing

Last week’s Cheltenham Festival provided us with some amount of drama, stunning performances and shock results in almost equal measure.

There were many highlights, but particular mention must go to Honeysuckle and all those connected with the great mare. Connections took a while to come to the right decision to run her back against her own sex rather than trying to defend her Champion Hurdle crown against the mighty Constitution Hill, but she certainly did everyone proud with a truly memorable swansong. The reception herself, Rachael and the de Bromhead family received after the race was something that will live long in the memory.

Winning Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival four years in a row is some achievement and marks Honeysuckle down as one of the all time great mares.

The standout performances on the track were undoubtedly El Fabiolo, Energumene, Galopin Des Champs and the aforementioned Constitution Hill.

The prospect of El Fabiolo and Energumene locking horns in the Champion Chase next season already has me excited. Not surprisingly the bookies cannot split the pair in their embryonic ante post lists for next year.

Connections of Constitution Hill are yet to confirm whether he will stick to hurdles next season or try his hand at fences and that decision is likely to have a huge bearing on what everyone else does. It would seem to be a no-brainer to stay hurdling, but that is far from certain and it would be some prospect to see how good he could be over the larger obstacles.

If he does go chasing next season it could have the knock on effect to persuade connections of the likes of Marine Nationale, Facile Vega and Impaire Et Passe to stick to hurdles. The bottom line is that no one in their right mind will want to take Constitution Hill on wherever he goes.

Presuming Constitution Hill sticks to hurdles it’s hard to see what will take him on in the Champion Hurdle. State Man is the next best out there at the moment, but couldn’t lay a glove on him last week.

Nicky Henderson has also hinted that Constitution Hill might have a run or two on the Flat and that would certainly be a fascinating experiment. Everything we’ve seen of Constitution Hill suggests that he’s one of the best National Hunt horses we’ve seen for generations so it’s very plausible that he could also be a Group 1 performer on the Flat.

Galopin Des Champs was brilliant in the Gold Cup and what a race it was. I loved the ride Paul Townend gave the favourite, sitting out the back, avoiding trouble and then making his move at the perfect time on a horse that had to prove his stamina for the distance. Bravemansgame also produced a fine effort to finish second and while it could be argued he didn’t quite see out the trip he’s obviously a very high class chaser and there will be plenty more big days for him.

Hewick ran a blinder on ground that was softer than he would ideally want. He took a crashing fall at the second last, but is thankfully back home now, safe and sound. Swerving Aintree is the right decision for him and a more orthodox preparation for next year’s Gold Cup could certainly see him return to Cheltenham as a major contender.

Overall there was a far greater spread of winners than I had anticipated. Willie Mullins with six was certainly at the lower end of what I thought he might attain, but five of them were at grade 1 level, including two of the big four races, and he had a further seven seconds and eight third places which can’t be considered too bad, even by his standards.

Gordon Elliott trained three winners which was one more than he achieved last year, but is still some ways off the heady days of 2018 when he visited the winners’ enclosure eight times. Henry de Bromhead also had three winners which matched his tally from last year.

Paul Nicholls drew a blank the last two years at Cheltenham, but bounced back with two winners this time which was positive to see. Dan Skelton also had a couple of winners this time having drawn a blank at each of the previous three festivals.

Wins for John Kiely, John McConnell, Colm Murphy, Tony Martin, Sam Curling and Barry Connell rounded off a great four days from an Irish perspective with 18 winners in total, which matched the performance from 2022, but this time nine Irish trainers tasted success compared to just six last year.

It’s always interesting to look back at the Cheltenham results to see what worked and what didn’t over the four days. Three of the winners had won at the Dublin Racing Festival on their previous start. Five horses that were beaten at DRF also went on to win at Cheltenham this year.

15 of the 28 winners were actually beaten last time out. Four of the winners hadn’t raced since December while Corach Rambler was off the track since November.

19 of the 28 winners wore no headgear and this included all of Willie Mullins’ winners. Of the winners that did, 9 had tongue-straps, 2 wore cheek-pieces and Sire Du Berlais was the only winner of the week in blinkers.

Altogether 39 horses wore some form of headgear for the first time at Cheltenham (Premier Magic had worn cheek-pieces once before in a point-to-point, but not on the racecourse) and Jazzy Matty was the only one of them to win. The four-year-old was fitted with both a tongue-strap and cheek-pieces for the first time for his Boodles victory.

The Boodles form is quite extraordinary. Four of the last five winners of the race had their prep run in a Rated Novice Hurdle at Naas in February. Aside from Jazzy Matty winning this year, the Naas race also provided the second (Byker) and sixth (Metamorpheus) from four runners.

17 of the 28 winners had previous course form at Cheltenham. Honeysuckle was winning for the fourth time at the Festival and it was a third time for Delta Work, Envoi Allen and Sire Du Berlais. It was a sixth Festival appearance for the Stayers’ Hurdle winner, Sire Du Berlais, as it was for both Paisley Park and Shantou Flyer. The last-named horse has placed five times, but never won at the Festival.

Two couples also rode winners over the four days, Rachael Blackmore and her fiancé Brian Hayes and Bridget Andrews and her husband Harry Skelton.

As always it will be fascinating to see how the Cheltenham form holds up at the upcoming Festivals at Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown and then we’ll have it all to look forward to again next March.

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