The Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival is always a fitting way to get the meeting up and running, and the 2023 line-up looks to be no exception.
Willie Mullins will be hoping that the irrepressible Facile Vega can kickstart his campaign with victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, before the Arkle could see a shootout between Close Brothers Novices’ Chase champion Jonbon and Appreciate It, who is unbeaten as a chaser this term.
And then all eyes will be on the Champion Hurdle, and a fascinating renewal that could pit two-time winner Honeysuckle against State Man and Constitution Hill, whose status as one of the finest hurdlers around has been furthered during the 2022/23 season.
The Cheltenham betting odds mark Constitution Hill down as a comfy 1/3 favourite, with State Man further down the Champion Hurdle betting at 9/2 and Honeysuckle next best at 8/1.
You won’t find many Cheltenham tips that offer such odds-on shouts as ones to follow, with the undulating nature of the Prestbury Park track and its stiff fences able to catch out the very best – see Galopin Des Champs’ famous fall at the final obstacle in the Turners Novices’ Chase as evidence, with many others suffering late defeats at the Festival before too.
But it’s hard to overlook Constitution Hill given the progress he has made this term. Twice Nicky Henderson’s hurdler has seen off the useful Epatante, and in the Christmas Hurdle in December he waltzed to a 17-length victory, with Nico de Boinville handed the luxury of easing his horse home down the final straight.
Constitution Hill beat the likes of Jonbon, Kilcruit and Mighty Potter in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle of 2022, and it’s incredible to think that at just six years old, his best days in racing may yet still be ahead of him.
State Man is another horse that has attracted some interest from punters. Willie Mullins’ charge has won five races in a row, with the second of those coming at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
Subsequent Grade 1 victories at Leopardstown and Punchestown further his appeal. Strong opponents, such as Kilcruit, Three Stripe Life, Vauban and Sharjah have been vanquished in that run, so perhaps State Man is a decent contender that could give Constitution Hill a run for his money.
The six-year-old is likely to have Paul Townend on board too, and there are few jockeys who know this Prestbury Park track quite like him – the Irishman is a two-time top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival.
It would be an almighty upset, nonetheless, but punters shouldn’t be too quick to write off State Man.
Only one horse aged nine or older has won the Champion Hurdle in the past two decades – and that was the scarcely stoppable Hurricane Fly.
It’s fairly unusual for hurdlers to still be racing at the top level at such an age, and yet Honeysuckle is aiming to become the first horse since the mighty Istabraq to win three consecutive editions of the Champion Hurdle.
She’ll have to beat the weight of the history books and Constitution Hill to do so, and that’s before a mediocre run in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle – where she was outpaced by Teahupoo and Klassical Dream – is taken into consideration.
Brilliant interview with Peter Molony and Gary O'Brien on Honeysuckle's future.@LeopardstownRC in four weeks' time will be the litmus test in which to measure future plans for @HenrydeBromhead's superstar mare. pic.twitter.com/OqqeTuPe4q— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 8, 2023
There is a suggestion that Honeysuckle will contest the Irish Champion Hurdle in February – a race she has won on three previous occasions. Her performance there will ultimately determine whether she heads to Cheltenham or is retired instead.
Racehorse connections are generally pretty good at looking after their animals when it comes to protecting them from one run too many, and so all eyes will be on Leopardstown to see if Honeysuckle can recapture some of her old zest for competing.
If she can’t, Constitution Hill could become one of the shortest favourites at the Cheltenham Festival in modern memory.
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