At about a quarter past two last Saturday afternoon a warm and welcome waft of well-being descended onto the chilly shoulders of British jump racing. Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill, a brilliant young horse of limitless potential, had just won impressively on his senior debut in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He’d cantered home by an effortless 12 lengths, eased down and the clock soon confirmed what the eyes had seen. The sighs of relief could be heard as far south as Newmarket.
If a week is a long time in politics, it can be an eternity in horse racing. Seven days earlier the headline Saturday meeting at Ascot had been decimated by late withdrawals, including Constitution Hill, leaving a paltry 30 runners to face the starter over a seven-race card, including a walkover and a two-horse match. The only race that had enough runners (eight) to pay third place on an each-way bet was the last one when some spectators were already heading to the train station. The sport was plunged into a very public existential crisis.
Now, after a tortuously introspective week, backs were being slapped again in the Newcastle winner’s enclosure. The congenitally conservative Henderson had allowed Constitution Hill to run on ground similar to what he had claimed at Ascot would have left his young superstar "wounded” in his box for a year if had he run there.
So, all was fine and dandy again — right? Well, not really, no. The positivity for a remarkable horse is only a temporary respite from the deep structural flaws of British jump racing. Small fields for uninteresting graded races, good animals avoiding each other before the Cheltenham Festival and all facilitated by battle-shy owners and trainers.
Gordon Elliott hit the nail on the head on Tuesday, just a couple of days after he’d saddled seven runners in the Troytown Chase at Navan. Reflecting on the ongoing self-sabotage in the sport across the water, he remarked: "A lot of the problems with British racing have been brought upon themselves... We have the best racing here because we have to take each other on every day…there’s no hiding place in Ireland. That doesn’t happen in England too often because they can duck and dive each other the whole time.”
In fairness to Henderson his primary duty of care is to his horses, staff, and owners and if the BHA make a dog’s dinner of the racing calendar that's not his problem. What is puzzling, and frustrating, however, is that when he speculated on Constitution Hill’s future programme immediately after the Ascot shambles, he focused only on ‘powder puff’ local alternatives when there are three very suitable and lucrative Grade One hurdles in Ireland between now and the beginning of February.
The first of those three races, the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, is the centrepiece of Fairyhouse’s winter festival. The centrepiece of an enthralling Sunday card that could reasonably be characterised as a ‘perfect race meeting.’ Ascot it ain't.
There are umpteen reasons why Sunday's meeting deserves such a lofty rating. Firstly, it occupies a lovely position right on the tipping-point of the winter schedule. Secondly, the strong attendance is usually in great form, watching happily as November recedes in the rear-view mirror while ahead there is nothing to be seen but upcoming thrills. This Fairyhouse meeting begins a high-class cycle of National Hunt fare that continues to the Durkan meeting at Punchestown, then parties merrily at Limerick and Leopardstown over Christmas before reaching a climax at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February. After that all roads will lead to Cheltenham.
Above all else, this meeting nudges at perfection because of the sheer quality and rhythm of the race card which always brings a lovely balance between returning stars and emerging prospects.
Unlike most Irish meetings which tend to open with an uninspiring maiden hurdle, Sunday is more innovatively framed. Two of the first three races are competitive handicap chases and sandwiched in between is a red-hot juvenile hurdle, won recently by the likes of Our Conor and Espoir D’allen. Several runners in the field look like they could progress to similar levels, with Zarak the Brave and Comfort prominent among them.
The Grade One fireworks don’t explode until the fourth race, the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle over two miles. Like the juvenile contest earlier, this race often signposts greatness with the likes of Hardy Eustace, Newmill, and Envoi Allen already on the honour roll. Sunday's renewal looks to be another cracker. Willie Mullins saddles the unbeaten favourite, Champ Kiely, and an equally popular winner would be Marine Nationale, for owner turned trainer, Barry Connell.
Connell has been involved in many Grade One winners over the years but he strongly believes that Marine may be the best of them.
“I’ve never had a horse like him before in all my career,” he said this week. “I just think he’s different. It’s the impression he’s given us and what he’s shown us to date. I might be wrong; he might hit a ceiling. But we’re all dreamers in this game and it’s fantastic to have this guy.”
Connell also saddles the outsider Enniskerry in the next race, the Drinmore Novice Chase over two and a half miles. This contest drips with talented young chasers and the clash between Three Stripe Life, Mighty Potter, and Banbridge alone would be worth a day trip to Meath on any normal Sunday.
The main course comes in the sixth, the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in which the beloved mare Honeysuckle attempts to make history by winning it four times on the spin. Her trainer, Henry de Bromhead sounds calm. “Rachael (Blackmore) schooled her,” he reports, “and she was brilliant and she seems really well, her work is good.”
Unbeaten in 17 starts, a dozen of them Grade Ones, Honeysuckle is one of the greatest race mares ever to jump a hurdle but for some perplexing reason her remarkable achievements attract many ungenerous ‘if and buts.’ ‘If’ she didn’t have the mares' 7lb weight allowance, would she still have won? ‘But’ what did she beat?
All Honeysuckle can do is to keep beating what lines up in front of her. Fairyhouse can be a cold place in December but if she wins again, a warm waft of winner’s enclosure love will quickly heat the place up.
Constitution Hill? That young upstart can wait until March.