“The best since …” was a theme of the final weeks of the Flat season, as the merits of the unbeaten colts, Flightline and Baaeed, were weighed in the balance against Secretariat and Frankel respectively, but when Constitution Hill steps onto the track before the Coral Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday afternoon, no “since” will be required.
With a Timeform rating of 177 at the end of the 2021-22 season, Nicky Henderson’s gelding is, quite simply, the best novice hurdler in the 60-odd years since the firm starting crunching the numbers over jumps. Unbeaten in three outings, Constitution Hill rounded off his first campaign over timber with a 22-length rout of his field in the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and he sets out on his second season as the clear favourite for the Champion Hurdle in a little less than four months’ time.
The fact that Honeysuckle, who is unbeaten in no less than 16 starts and has won the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle, is second-favourite to retain the crown tells its own story. Constitution Hill’s rating – after just three starts – already puts him in front of all-time hurdling greats including Faugheen (176), Sea Pigeon (175), Salmon Spray (175) and Henderson’s own See You Then (173), the winners of seven Champion Hurdles between them.
Yet amid the intense and understandable anticipation that surrounds Constitution Hill’s return to action, a pause to remember the horse he replaced as Timeform’s best novice should perhaps temper expectations just a little.
This is jumping, after all, when a single mistake over an obstacle can turn triumph to disaster, and Golden Cygnet, who was rated 176 at the end of the 1977/78 season, is perhaps still the biggest “what if?” horse of them all.
Like Constitution Hill, he powered many lengths clear in the Supreme Novice Hurdle without his rider needing to reach for the whip, and – also like Constitution Hill – he completed the two miles at Cheltenham in a faster time than the Champion Hurdle winner later the same afternoon.
The Supreme was the fifth start of Golden Cygnet’s career and he won so easily that Edward O’Grady, his trainer, sent him to the Easter meeting at Fairyhouse just 13 days later, when he set off at 2-7 on heavy ground and extended his unbeaten record to six with a 10-length success.
In another echo of Constitution Hill’s career so far, Golden Cygnet was already favourite to win the Champion Hurdle, almost 12 months before it was due to be run. And were he running in these more cautious and Festival-focused times, O’Grady might well have put him away for the summer. But he decided to give his hurdler one final start – in a handicap, no less – and it proved to be his final race.
Golden Cygnet was set to carry 11st 13lb in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr on 15 April 1978, just 1lb less than the dual Champion Hurdle winner, Sea Pigeon, and he looked certain to defy his burden with ease as he ranged alongside the leaders on the run to the final flight. But disaster struck a moment later, as Golden Cygnet clipped the top of the hurdle and fell. He got to his feet, but proved to have suffered a fatal injury to his neck and was put down a couple of days later.
The memory of Golden Cygnet is a necessary reminder to take nothing for granted as Constitution Hill sets out on the road to Cheltenham on Saturday. He is priced up at around 1-4 to beat a small but experienced band of rivals, including Brewinupastorm (6-1) and the mercurial Goshen (9-1), who is capable of high-class form when he is in the mood, particularly on a right-handed track like Ascot.
“Everything has gone very well in the lead-up,” Henderson told his bookie-sponsored blog on Friday. “As usual, he is very relaxed in everything he does until you press that button, and when you do, he is electric and nothing can go with him.” Constitution Hill is already within touching distance of the best hurdlers the sport has seen, and Saturday’s race, 249 days after his last start, could edge him closer still.
Botox Has looks perfect for Haydock prize
The three Graded events on Saturday’s ITV Racing card all have odds-on favourites but the £72,000 first prize for the stayers’ handicap hurdle at Haydock has attracted a deep and competitive field in which Might I, Good Risk At All and Run For Oscar, the recent Cesarewitch winner on the Flat at Newmarket, are vying for favouritism at around 4-1.
The three-mile trip on softening ground is a question mark against both Might I and Good Risk At All, however, while Run For Oscar is carrying top weight despite running poorly on his latest start over timber.
As a result, it could pay to delve a little further down the betting and the 14-1 on offer in places about Gary Moore’s Botox Has (2.25) looks like the pick of the early prices.
The five-year-old made a solid return to action when finishing second at Cheltenham’s October meeting, two lengths behind the winner, and should find some improvement on Saturday for what was his first start since winning the Grade Two National Spirit Hurdle in February.
That performance gives him a big chance at these weights and promising conditional Caolin Quinn takes off a useful 7lb too.
Haydock 1.50: Just four runners for a graduation chase that has gone to Paul Nicholls in three of the last five years and Hitman, who put up a series of high-class performances without winning last season, will be a short price to set up a tilt at the King George on Boxing Day.
Ascot 2.05: A five-strong field is likely to be just three runners by the off with L’Homme Presse, the winner of the Festival’s three-mile novice chase back in March, at a very short price for a winning return.
Ascot 2.40: The unbeaten Constitution Hill is impossible to oppose on his first start outside novice company, and should strengthen his position as favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March.
Haydock 3.00: A Plus Tard was an impressive winner of this Grade One on his return to action last season it will be a big disappointment if Henry de Bromhead’s gelding fails to follow up.
Ascot 3.15: Edwardstone is a rare Grade One winner in a handicap having missed last weekend’s Cheltenham meeting due to the fast ground and may struggle to give a stone-and-a-half to the improving Boothill.
Haydock 3.35: Lord Du Mesnil has plenty of weight to carry but has an excellent record over track and trip and looked as good as ever at Bangor last time.