King of the Hill to get entry to tackle Queen Bee Honeysuckle at Punchestown Festival
Henderson to “keep the option open”
Master of Seven Burrows also recalls “very special day” when Irish embraced Sprinter Sacre
Nicky Henderson has confirmed that Constitution Hill is likely to feature at the Punchestown Festival and has not ruled out a heavyweight clash with established hurdling queen Honeysuckle, with the facile Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victor to be entered in both the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle and the Bective Stud Champion Novice Hurdle.
Epatante, who finished runner-up as Honeysuckle retained her Cheltenham Champion Hurdle crown last week, Mares’ Hurdle heroine Marie’s Rock and another exciting novice Walking On Air, who missed Cheltenham after a slight setback, are others who are set to make the cross-channel jaunt.
But all eyes will be on Constitution Hill and the possibility of a mouth-watering contest for the ages, first mooted by owner Michael Buckley after the five-year-old’s 12-length demolition job in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January.
Should the encounter take place between the mistress of all she surveys and her young pretender, it would surely prompt similar parade ring scenes to when Henderson brought Sprinter Sacre to the Kildare festival to win the William Hill Champion Chase in 2013, an occasion the legendary trainer rhapsodises about, describing it as “a very special day”.
Honeysuckle would be defending her Punchestown crown, having done the same in sensational fashion in the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained mare is the pre-eminent National Hunt horse on the planet, unbeaten in 15 appearances under Rules, which is a record. She has a point-to-point triumph under her belt as well from her days of tutoring under Jerry Cosgrave and Mark O’Hare.
After her Dromahane romp, Honeysuckle had her first visit to Punchestown for the Goffs NH Sale during the 2018 festival.
So it was that Kenny Alexander, emboldened by his enjoyment of the hospitality on offer, acquiesced to Peter Molony’s suggestion to shell out €110,000 for the daughter of Sulamani. Now eight, Honeysuckle has brought the Scot and his family on a remarkable journey, with Henry de Bromhead, Rachael Blackmore and the entire racing public latching onto her coattails.
Constitution Hill is also a product of the Irish point-to-point scene. Bought initially by the former first jockey at Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard, Barry Geraghty, he was trained by Warren Ewing to finish a head second to Anyharminasking at Tipperary, having suffered from a muscle-wasting illness as a youngster.
Geraghty insisted to Buckley and Henderson that he would develop into a real talent and his judgement has proven spot on, with Henderson’s handling of the Blue Bresil gelding playing a huge part in that process.
The novice is unbeaten under Rules, albeit from just three appearances, but has prevailed by an aggregate 48 lengths, most recently trouncing what beforehand was considered an ultra-competitive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle field by 22 lengths, smashing the course record in the process.
Having such a talent appear at the festival will be a gift to those in attendance, but even the possibility of taking on Honeysuckle is sparking unprecedented levels of excitement.
“I’m afraid Michael seems to have taken up the mantle,” says a chuckling Henderson on the topic. “I’ve just been reading the reports! I honestly don’t know what we’ll do. We haven’t discussed it. I know he’s very keen to take on Honeysuckle. I should think it’s quite likely he will get an entry in the Champion Hurdle as it keeps the options open.
“Michael is a great sportsman and nothing will scare him off, that’s for sure. So we shall see.
“He’s inexperienced but he’s very straightforward. He’s the same as Honeysuckle like that isn’t he? She’s a push-button machine.”
While Constitution Hill looked like he could go around again at Cheltenham, such performances require considerable exertion and so Henderson will make sure he is in a condition to give of his best, whatever race he targets.
“This was the case when Sprinter came to Ireland. Barry always said to me, ‘You had him at 100 per cent for Cheltenham, he was on 90 per cent at Aintree and he was on 80 per cent at Punchestown.’ You thought he was having easy races but he’s not, because he’s putting an awful lot of nervous energy, adrenaline and so on into it. He psyches himself up and they have to. That’s why they’re so good. They don’t just saunter around and think, ‘Oh that was easy, I’ll go back to bed now.’ It takes much more out of them, you’d never believe it.”
Henderson felt Sprinter Sacre was “over the top” when beating a 12-year-old Sizing Europe at Punchestown nine years ago, having made a last-minute decision he now regrets to take in Aintree after his Cheltenham success. But the cacophony of noise from the heaving mass that swelled around the parade ring will never leave him.
“It was amazing. The nicest thing was the Irish reception he got was amazing. You don’t normally see a French-bred horse trained in England get such an ovation. The crowd was absolutely incredible and it was a very special day.”
Honeysuckle’s predecessor as Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winner, Epatante was right back to her best this year and could pitch up with her Prestbury Park nemesis once more in a race Henderson won with Buveur D'Air in 2019, when the trainer also saddled Fusil Raffles and O O Seven to Punchestown Festival triumphs.
“She’s had a good year. She’s won a Fighting Fifth and a Christmas Hurdle and now second in the Champion Hurdle. Only Honeysuckle could beat her. She will almost certainly come over. We have discussed Aintree but it’s two and a half and she doesn’t want two and a half. She’s all about speed.”
And speaking of further possible visitors, Henderson added: “There’s nothing obvious for Marie’s Rock in Aintree so I’d say she’ll go somewhere in Punchestown. What Jonbon does will probably depend on what Constitution Hill does. Walking On Air may go to Punchestown after missing Cheltenham. He’s pretty smart and has come back really well.”
With the English season concluded the week before at Sandown – Henderson gives himself no chance of finishing as champion trainer but is tickled that Willie Mullins has put it on his agenda – the trainer and his wife Sophie will begin the Punchestown Festival week as usual with a couple of days at Martinstown Stud to cast he eyes over the horses he trains for JP McManus and some of the older brigade enjoying their retirement in the Limerick air.
The couple will then travel to up to Punchestown on Tuesday morning and spend the rest of their stay at Commonstown Stud, hosted by Henderson’s long-time friend, Jessica Harrington.
“It’s great fun, isn’t it? We have a Cheltenham, which you could call fun, but it’s a bit taxing. Aintree is fun but then you’ve Punchestown, which is really good fun, with the added bonus of great racing and great prize money and we’ll try to get our hands on some of it.”