Nicky Henderson© Photo Healy Racing
Constitution Hill and Epatante are both set to take their place in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday — with Nicky Henderson looking forward to the clash on the back of what he referred to as an “unpleasant weekend”.
The Grade One feature has served as Epatante’s starting point towards the Champion Hurdle in the last two seasons, winning the race outright in 2020 before dead-heating with Not So Sleepy 12 months ago.
Constitution Hill was poised to begin his own journey back to the Cheltenham Festival at Ascot in the Coral Ascot Hurdle last Saturday, but ground conditions at the Berkshire track saw the Seven Barrows star withdrawn on the day of the race.
That decision led to much debate and criticism, but now the ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March has been rerouted to Gosforth Park Henderson is hoping it proves he is not scared of running his star performers when conditions are suitable.
Asked if he might make rather different headlines after opting to go head-to-head this weekend, Henderson said: “It would be nice because it was pretty unpleasant last weekend, I have to say.
“Luckily I found a few allies later on in the day that agreed it was the perfectly sensible thing to do and I have no regrets about what we did.
“It was a great pity for the public and the people who went there, but don’t forget there were other non-runners and I wasn’t responsible for the whole day being a disaster on my own.”
On Constitution Hill and Epatante, who are in different ownership, meeting, he said: “We’re not running scared of each other, but I was trying to avoid each other. I was trying to dream up a way that could happen which was the whole point of Ascot — a lovely race, with lovely prize-money, it seemed a perfectly good way of splitting them up, but it wasn’t to be.
“It’s a pity to do it from my point of view, but it’s two different owners and if they were in two different yards they would meet and that’s the way it is.”
Since the Ascot withdrawal, the destination of Constitution Hill’s first outing has been a hot topic, with Cheltenham’s Unibet International Hurdle another option discussed along with the Fighting Fifth.
However, owner Michael Buckley has come down in favour of a trip to the north east and a race to savour for those in attendance at Gosforth Park.
“Michael and I have discussed it ever since the weekend and it was very much a toss-up between going to Newcastle or waiting for the International at Cheltenham,” said Henderson.
“And Michael decided yesterday that he, probably quite rightly, wanted to run at Newcastle. He said, ‘come on let’s go to Newcastle’.
“The horse is fit and well and if we wait another fortnight anything could happen. Also bear in mind the weather could stay like it has done down south, I’ve just been walking round Newbury — I got drowned this morning, but they are having to chuck water on it to keep this good ground, so we can’t risk that.
“With the news that Newcastle has some soft bits in it and it’s nice slow ground we decided we have to get on with it and go. He was very fit and well last weekend and hopefully he is this weekend.”
Although it will be the furthest Constitution Hill will have travelled in a horsebox, Epatante is no stranger to trips north and especially Newcastle.
Henderson continued: “Perhaps in the beginning we were hoping Constitution Hill and Epatante didn’t have to meet at this stage of the season, but the dice has gone that way and we have to let them both run.
“The Grade One races are patterned so by coming here you get into the Christmas Hurdle. If they had to meet anywhere the idea was that it would be there (Kempton), but that wasn’t to be and consequently they have to take each other on now and there will be plenty of others taking us on, too — it will be a proper Grade One race.”
Although a former Champion Hurdle winner, Epatante is rated 14lb inferior to Constitution Hill, with the Seven Barrows handler admitting he does not know just how good the latter could be.
He continued: “She’s won it twice, won three Grade Ones last year and was second in the Champion Hurdle. She got as close to Honeysuckle as any horse did last year.
“She has every right to be at the top of a Grade One race. The trouble is we don’t know what Constitution Hill is to be honest with you. It was a freakish performance on all three occasions last year. The Tolworth was the first glimpse we had of what might be there and the Supreme was ridiculous that he could do that to Jonbon, who I thought was seriously top-class.
“Epatante’s prep has been good and has been identical to last year and the year before.
“Newbury always have a gallops morning and Constitution Hill didn’t come to that day, but Epatante has always galloped on that Tuesday and did so again last week. She had a nice spin round over two miles then worked again on Monday so that’s her work done with.
“Aidan’s (Coleman, jockey) feeling is — and I would probably agree — that she is further ahead than she was this time last year.
“It was a very messy race going to the last (in 2021) — the traffic wasn’t exactly flowing her way towards the end, and she did get held up a bit.
“And she might have come on for it because she was mighty impressive in the Christmas Hurdle and was miles ahead of Not So Sleepy that day. We think she is really well.”
Barry Orr, spokesperson for the sponsors, is delighted at the prospect of a race to savour.
He said: “As sponsors we are obviously delighted with the news. It’s not only great for the race but also for the National Hunt game in general that Nicky, with the respective owners, have elected to run both horses.
“That competitive element has been sadly lacking in recent renewals of the race, but this is a step in the right direction and will make the Fighting Fifth the must watch race of the weekend.”