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Fighting Fifth Hurdle

The wait was worthwhile, worth every minute of the seven days. One week on from his intended and postponed seasonal return at Ascot, Constitution Hill went to Newcastle yesterday and turned the Grade 1 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle into a procession.

It was the first time that Nicky Henderson’s horse had appeared in public since he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last March. He was brilliant that day, he was imperious in winning the curtain-raiser at the 2022 Festival by 22 lengths and clocking a lightning-fast time. But brilliance can be dulled in the mind’s eye by the passage of time. Recency bias is a thing. Time passing is time to look for potential flaws. Constitution Hill had raced just three times in his life, and never outside of novice company. He had never before met a horse with the proven ability of his stable companion Epatante, a Champion Hurdle winner.

The clash between the two stable companions yesterday was borne out of necessity. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle was always the intended step into the season for Epatante. It is the race in which JP McManus’ mare has made her debut in each of the last two seasons. But when Nicky Henderson deemed the ground to be too fast at Ascot last Saturday for Constitution Hill’s return, a new plan had to be concocted, and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and, inevitably, a clash with Epatante, was by far the most logical new plan.

With no confirmed front-runner in yesterday’s race, it wasn’t certain how strong the early pace was going to be, nor who was going to set it. But Constitution Hill’s rider Nico de Boinville was proactive in that regard: he lined his horse up in front and allowed him stride on. Kept it simple. He reached the first flight two lengths clear, ears pricked, and he flowed.

Michael Buckley’s horse’s jumping was impeccable, every flight of hurdles in his stride. And as each obstacle came and went, his grip on the race tightened.

Epatante move up on his inside as they rounded the home turn and approached the third last flight, but the mare got in tight to that obstacle, knocked the top off it and landed flat-footed. That effectively ended the race as a contest. The only imponderable after that was how impressive Constitution Hill would be in victory, and the answer was quickly forthcoming: seriously.

He jumped the last two flights of hurdles as accurately and as effortlessly as he had jumped the previous seven, and he sauntered up to the winning line under his motionless rider, 12 lengths clear of Epatante.

Nicky Henderson was watching on from Newbury, where he had four more runners and two more winners.

“The nice thing is, what we saw last year, it looked pretty freakish,” he told Racing TV. “I was just worried that this was going to be a silly tactical race today. I said to Nico, go and enjoy yourself, you can do anything with this horse, he’s so versatile. His brain is so good. We had never made the running before, he had never made the running in a gallop before, but off he goes, on his own, the fourth race of his life, you press the button. How he quickened up, even I was impressed.”

There were two other two-mile hurdles run at Newcastle yesterday, and Constitution Hill clocked a time that was over eight seconds faster than one of them, and over 15 seconds faster than the other.

“All four feet on the ground,” said Henderson. “I’m thrilled for Michael (Buckley, owner), I’m sad for Epatante. She would have won it in any normal year. But this horse is a bit of a freak. Half the beauty of him is his temperament. I did put him in (the Matheson Hurdle) in Ireland, because Epatante has gone, every year, from the Fighting Fifth to the Christmas Hurdle. Honeysuckle is another ball game altogether though, so we look forward to that. I think that everyone would like us to meet in March, and let that be the decider.”

© The Sunday Times, 27th November 2022