Former jockey and Sky Sports Racing presenter Mick Fitzgerald has cast his expert eye over four of the key contenders for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The headline act on day one of the four-day meeting, on March 14, this year’s Champion Hurdle features the most talked about star of the week in Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill.
Last year’s dominant Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner has conquered all before him so far but now tests his skills against Irish Champion Hurdle victor State Man and 2022 Triumph Hurdle king Vauban. Potentially throw into the mix former Champion Hurdle winner Epatante and this year’s renewal looks an absolute cracker.
- Trainer: Nicky Henderson
- Jockey: Nico de Boinville
- Age: 6
- Odds: 1/3
- Big-race wins: Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle (2022), Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2022), Fighting Fifth Hurdle (2022), Christmas Hurdle (2022)
What Constitution Hill did in the Supreme last year was just freakish, most people were blown away, although some said it was because Dysart Dynamo and Jonbon went too quick and set it up for him, but subsequent runs have just shown him to be a little bit of a freak.
To do what he did in the Fighting Fifth to a former Champion Hurdler in Epatante was just jaw-dropping; he laid her out cold, and so it told me his Supreme win wasn’t a type of fluke. He was then maybe more impressive in the Christmas Hurdle, beating Epatante further, and in both starts this season we have seen just how tactically versatile he is.
This horse really is the gift that keeps on giving; any time people go to see him they have been treated to a big performance and that is so rare. Just look at his winning distances since coming to Seven Barrows; 14 lengths; 12 lengths; 22 lengths; 12 lengths and 17 lengths; and some of those have been hard on the bridle.
He’s a very hard horse to be negative about, and the only time I’ve ever seen him make a mistake was the second last at Kempton, but the race was in the bag.
He just looks the complete package. On what we’ve seen so far, it looks like all the different facets of racing agree on him; the paddock experts; the time guys and all the form experts; everyone is in unison in saying that Constitution Hill is just a cut above. It’s pretty rare all these people actually agree on a horse, no one can find a hole or a flaw.
He’s bigger and stronger this year and I can’t see the 78-day break causing any issues. Nicky (Henderson) is just a master at preparing a horse for Cheltenham and what makes him so good with these top-class horses is he recognises when a horse puts in a big performance, like this lad did in the Supreme last year, he knows he can’t ask him to do that too often in a season.
Nicky won’t be counting any chickens yet though until Constitution Hill goes and wins a Champion Hurdle.
Strengths – He looks the complete package
Weak spot – It’s hard to find one
- Trainer: Willie Mullins
- Jockey: Paul Townend
- Age: 6
- Odds: 5/2
- Big-race wins: Champion Novice Hurdle (2022), Morgiana Hurdle (2022), Matheson Hurdle (2022), Irish Champion Hurdle (2023)
It’s been unbelievable to see the progress State Man has made from last year’s County Hurdle. I suppose you think about it now and say ‘how on earth did he get into the race off a mark of 141?!’.
The fall he had on debut for Willie (Mullins) over Christmas at Leopardstown just maybe helped hide him a bit better from the handicapper and in truth probably changed the direction of his season.
It just goes to show that things are not always straightforward for horses, because if he had stood up and won at Leopardstown he might have faced Constitution Hill for the first time in last year’s Supreme, instead of winning the County Hurdle.
There’s now no doubt he’s a very, very smart horse and the signs were maybe there in how he was ridden in the County. I watched that race again and he was ridden like he was an aeroplane. It was like Paul Townend felt ‘this horse can’t get beat and I’ll ride him how I like’.
I don’t see any issues in him switching courses in the Champion Hurdle – run on the sharper Old Course. It’s not a track for every horse, but State Man looks to have plenty of pace. The biggest problem they may have is the pace of the race and how his jumping holds up.
To be fair to the horse, his jumping has got better as the season has gone on, but it’s not an ace card for him. Better ground, stronger pace and a sharper track will uncover any weaknesses there.
What the Irish Champion Hurdle win did tell us, though, is he is a very serious contender at Cheltenham.
Strengths – He is a classy, improving horse with Cheltenham Festival-winning form
Weak spot – Possibly his jumping at a true Champion Hurdle pace
- Trainer: Willie Mullins
- Jockey: Danny Mullins
- Age: 5
- Odds: 8/1
- Big-race wins: Spring Juvenile Hurdle (2022), JCB Triumph Hurdle (2022), Champion Four Year Old Hurdle (2022)
I keep looking at Vauban racing and seeing him being keen, but still finishing his races out nicely. In the Irish Champion Hurdle behind State Man, he made a mistake at the first hurdle because he was gassy and running at it a little bit, but having been outpaced, he finished off the race really well.
The way I see it, if I was in charge, I would make the running with Vauban for the simple reason he keeps proving that he stays. When you think back to him winning the Triumph Hurdle last year, he finished strongly despite being keen on the New Course, which puts the emphasis on stamina.
He’s got a fair engine this horse, but can anybody see him reversing form with State Man the way he has been ridden the two times they have taken each other on this season?
On Champion Hurdle day, if I am Danny Mullins or whoever will ride Vauban, when I’m down at the start, I’m bouncing out and making the running. Maybe Danny will ride and we’ve seen what he can do from the front on some of these Willie Mullins horses over the last few seasons – and Flooring Porter, too.
I can just see Vauban being bang there with State Man at the last and giving him a run for his money if they ride him this way. In the market without Constitution Hill or just to be placed, he could prove to be a good bet on the day if they change things up.
Strengths – I think stamina is this horse’s trump card, but he needs a chance to show it
Weak spot – State Man has had his measure the two times they have clashed
- Trainer: Nicky Henderson
- Jockey: Aidan Coleman
- Age: 9
- Odds: 20/1
- Big-race wins: Christmas Hurdle (2019, 2021), Champion Hurdle (2020), Fighting Fifth Hurdle (2020, 2021), Aintree Hurdle (2022)
We are not 100 per cent certain where Epatante will run just yet. She is entered in the Champion Hurdle, but needs to be supplemented for the Mares’ Hurdle. I see she is 20/1 Non-Runner No Bet with some firms for the Champion Hurdle and maybe the each-way part of that price is a touch big about a former winner?
After doing Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown last season, and having been put away so easily by Constitution Hill in the Fighting Fifth, I think we were all asking ourselves is she gone as a force in the Champion Hurdle picture or, is she just very good now?
I think the race at Doncaster told us, because watching that visually, I went ‘wow!’. I know she was entitled to win like that, but she was very good on the day, winning with her head in her chest.
Maybe we just aren’t giving Constitution Hill his full dues or maybe, another way of looking at it is asking: ‘Was last year’s Champion Hurdle form just not that strong?’
I do know Nicky (Henderson) has been happy with Epatante though, and she’s had no reoccurrence of the old back injury and to fair to her, the ground in the Christmas Hurdle was softer than ideal, while also taking on Constitution Hill.
Epatante is a mare who we know loves Cheltenham; is a former Champion Hurdle winner and was also second in last year’s Champion, and but for a serious mistake at the last, she would have really roughed up Honeysuckle. I can’t emphasise enough how hard it is to get going again up that hill after an error like that.
Like we saw at Doncaster, she really enjoyed getting back on some nicer ground so that spring going will also be another positive for her while Nicky will have her tuned to the pound for the race.
Strengths – She’s won a Champion Hurdle and been placed in two others
Weak spot – You do have to wonder if the younger horses have improved past her now