Cheltenham Festival shock as Constitution Hill a doubt for Champion Hurdle

Champion: Constitution Hill (David Davies/PA Wire)
Champion: Constitution Hill (David Davies/PA Wire)

Constitution Hill, the reigning Champion Hurdler, is a doubt for the Cheltenham Festival after disappointing in a piece of work at Kempton on Tuesday morning.

The seven-year-old was eased off up the run-in as he struggled to keep pace with stablemate and Triumph Hurdle favourite Sir Gino. Trainer Nicky Henderson confirmed afterwards that the horse returned a dirty scope showing “evidence of mucus”.

Several leading firms immediately suspended betting on the Champion Hurdle, with the Willie Mullins-trained State Man now installed as ante-post favourite with most bookmakers.

The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on the opening day of the Festival in exactly two weeks’ time and while Henderson has not yet ruled his superstar out of defending his title, he admitted his participation now hangs in the balance.

Constitution Hill winning last year’s Champion Hurdle (REUTERS)
Constitution Hill winning last year’s Champion Hurdle (REUTERS)

“We’ve just scoped him,” Henderson said. “Jamie Knapp, the vet here, has had a look at him. He’s fine. I’ve got a sample here which I’m now going to take to our vet to have it analysed.

“There is evidence of mucus in there. We’ll have an answer this afternoon, we’ll see what the figures are. If it is just mucus, you can clear it up with antibiotics.”

"I’m sorry I can’t tell you exactly where we are. I’m certainly not going to rule him out at this stage. If he’s not clean in a week, he's not going to get there in another week probably.”

Widely considered the best horse in training, Constitution Hill remains unbeaten in eight starts over hurdles and has lit up the opening day of each of the past two Cheltenham Festivals, winning the Supreme Novices’s Hurdle by 22 lengths in 2022 and then cruising to Champions Hurdle glory 12 months ago.

There was heavy debate during the summer as to whether the Michael Buckley-owned horse would be sent chasing but connections eventually decided to stick to the smaller obstacles in the hope of retaining his crown.

However, he has been seen just once on the racecourse this season, when recording an easy success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, and missed an intended run at Cheltenham’s Trials Day meeting in late-January.