Honeysuckle is odds-on to secure a record fourth success in next Sunday’s Bar One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse but in terms of Cheltenham betting is firmly in the shadow of Constitution Hill.
Having stretched his unbeaten record to four with a scintillating victory in Saturday’s Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the English prodigy has shot to as short as 4-6 to depose Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle come March.
It was a performance to prompt debate about Constitution Hill’s position in theoretical “GOAT” debates never mind a clash with the reigning dual-title holder in more than three months’ time.
There was an element of a “follow that” invitation to the Honeysuckle camp after the English star’s contemptuous dozen-length defeat of his stable companion Epatante.
The latter has twice been placed behind Honeysuckle in the last two Champion Hurdles but hardly dismissed in the manner with which she was on Saturday.
That Irish racing’s most popular mare has a much longer unbeaten record of 16 wins, and has always found a way to win, but it didn’t appear to count for much in the aftermath of Saturday’s remarkable display.
However, Honeysuckle has put up some of her finest performances in the Hatton’s Grace and is on course to eclipse other triple winners of the Winter Festival’s €120,000 feature, Limestone Lad, Solerina and Apple’s Jade.
On Sunday, Henry De Bromhead confirmed the mare on course for Fairyhouse while joining in unanimous praise for Constitution Hill’s performance.
“I’d be a mug to say I wasn’t impressed, of course I was. I thought he was really impressive, like everyone else.
“I was delighted for the connections, he looks very exciting for them. Michael [Buckley, owner of Constitution Hill,] seems like a great guy and Nicky [Henderson] got a lot of stick for taking him out last week at Ascot, which I thought was wrong, so I was delighted for them to see him go to Newcastle and do what he did,” he said.
As for worrying about any future Cheltenham clash, De Bromhead added: “I’m worrying about my mare for the Hatton’s Grace next Sunday, that’s all I’m worried about at the moment. I’m not thinking any further down the line than that.” Nevertheless, months ahead of the festival, anticipation is already growing at the prospect of a classic Anglo-Irish championship clash at Cheltenham.
“I think everybody would like us to meet in March and let that be the decider,” Constitution Hill’s trainer Nicky Henderson said on Sunday.
Despite decades of top-flight success, even Henderson has been moved to describe his latest star in “freakish” terms.
“This is a bit of a freak. I honestly believe the secret to this horse is his head. He’s just got such an amazing mindset, his real weapon is that nothing bothers him. You could run him in a steeplechase tomorrow, he wouldn’t mind it,” he said before confirming Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle as a next target.
“It’s got to be Kempton, it has to be. That’s what the book says, the Pattern is Fighting Fifth, Kempton. You have to go by the book, that’s why it’s written that way,” Henderson said.
De Bromhead was out of luck with his two runners at Navan on Sunday, including the expensive £370,000 purchase Kudasheva who had to settle for third in a maiden hurdle.
As maidens go, however, there was consensus that this could be filed under “hot”.
Grangeclare West, himself a £340,000 purchase, looked an exceptional prospect, ultimately winning by a dozen lengths as Firm Footings edged out Kudasheva for second.
“He surprised me in the manner he did it. As I said to the owner before racing, we could run well here and finish fourth or fifth. I thought it looked a very deep maiden hurdle,” the winner’s trainer, Willie Mullins, said.
Mullins saddled Saint Roi for a later Beginners Chase but this time had to settle for the runner-up spot behind Gordon Elliott’s Fil Dor.
Making full use of his four-year-old weight allowance, Fil Dor proved too strong for his rival from the final fence after a sustained struggle.
Fil Dor’s odds for Arkle glory at Cheltenham were subsequently cut to as low as 8-1.
“Jack said it was a proper race and the second is a very good horse,” Elliott said. “He will go to Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day for the two-mile Grade One there.”
Elliott and jockey Jack Kennedy had an easier success in a handicap hurdle as Jungle Prose continued her rise through the ratings with a fourth victory in a row.
Already 40lbs higher than when winning at Thurles last month, Jungle Prose nevertheless won with significantly more in hand than her length-and-a-half winning margin might suggest.