NATIONAL Hunt racing had come under the cosh these recent weeks. In the aftermath of a Cheltenham Festival, where for the second year in a row, small fields in many of the Grade 1 races made for poor spectacles, the prospect of a fifth day, which would further dilute and allow good horses to avoid each other, was not well received by the sport’s fans.
In the same week, Nicky Henderson also ended any speculation that his top novice Constitution Hill would take on Honeysuckle in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle next Friday, and indeed would not travel to Ireland.
Neither is a surprise but the negativity should be less for that latter decision.
It has been put forward that many novices stepped forth into open company and those clashes were ‘good for the sport.’ But there are arguments for both sides.
You can pick and choose what novices proved up to the tasks. Golden Cygnet was mentioned, Gloria Victus was another to be killed, while there is an argument both ways for the campaigning of Coneygree and Thistlecrack, winning the top Grade 1s as novices was special but both never reached that height again.
Back though the recent decades, Back In Front may have run in the Punchestown Champion and started favourite after he had won at meeting earlier but that was one dire looking “Champion”. If he was fit and at the track, it’s easy to see why not go. And Back In Front was more experienced on the track and began his hurdling career in a Grade 1 novice.
Only six ran when Davenport Milenium took on odds-on favourite Ned Kelly in 2002 after winning his novice earlier at the meeting, with the Henderson-trained Leading Light the other main fancy.
In recent years, novices Samcro (fell) and Labaik (fourth) did run in the Champion Hurdle but going back a few years, there were no calls for Douvan or Vautour, impressive Supreme Novices’ winners, to take on experienced rivals a month later.
Vautour won the Grade 1 novice at 1/3 in a four-runner field in 2014 when Jezki (4/5) beat Hurricane Fly and one other, a stable companion, in the Champion, and I don’t remember such negative comments, and this year is actually shaping up much better race than that one eight years ago.
Douvan won the Grade 1 novice in 2015 at odds of 1/6 while Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen justified 1/6 odds when beating stable companion Arctic Fire and two others on the Friday. It would be abigger effort to travel with a three-time-raced novice and take on an unbeaten dual Champion Hurdle winner.
Despite Constitution Hill being pitched into a Grade 1 on his second start, a very weak one where he went off odds-on, and winning impressively in a fast time at Cheltenham, you can understand the decision not to travel with the five-year-old.
Henderson did not fare too well in the press with his comments around missing races with Altior on occasions and there was the Shishkin episode last year before the Tingle Creek.
Shishkin missed the Tingle Creek because Henderson was not happy with him. But then you note his recently diagnosed ‘bone condition’ and maybe that was an issue back then, if he was not performing well?
I don’t think Constitution Hill’s non-appearance, which was orginally encouraged by his owner, is the worst thing from the news last week.
It’s unlikely that it would really add to the Punchestown attendance or viewership, from outside of racing. And if it were Mullins, Nicholls or de Bromhead, to name three, the clash of a five-year-old novice, having to give an unbeaten champion hurdler 7lb would never have been entertained.
There’s a nice line in assistant trainer Harry Derham’s blog this week, from Paul Nicholls. “Horses can’t talk but they will tell you all you need to know if you listen.”
We do have too many graded races which provide options to keep the top horses apart. But it’s not always correct that the racing pundits are the ones calling the shots over decisions in a horse’s racing career.