There was no doubting the star attraction on the opening day of the 2023 Cheltenham Festival and Constitution Hill didn’t let down his army of fans with a breath-taking performance in the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle (2m).
Sent off at prohibitive odds of 4-11, Michael Buckley’s brilliant gelding was bidding to extend his unbeaten record to six races under Rules, having wowed the Festival crowds last year with a 22-length demolition of stable companion Jonbon in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Nico de Boinville settled the six-year-old just behind the leaders as I Like To Move It set the early fractions ahead of Not So Sleepy. Such is Constitution Hill’s raw talent that he eased to the front three out without any urgings from his rider and at this point the race was as good as over.
Despite taking off half a stride too early at the final flight, Constitution Hill landed full of running and sprinted up the famous hill to record an easy nine-length triumph over the hitherto unbeaten State Man, with Zanahiyr a further four lengths back in third.
For trainer Nicky Henderson it was a ninth Champion Hurdle victory, following See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010), Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018) and Epatante (2020).
“I can’t believe at this stage of his life he’s doing things like that,” Henderson said. “It shows you that he is just remarkable.
“You always worry that something has gone wrong, or you haven’t done enough with this and that and the other – he hasn’t run since Christmas.
“Of course, there’s pressure on, with all you guys here. It’s always fun but underneath it’s not quite as much fun as you think it is. But when it’s over I promise you, it is!”
De Boinville said: “He’s given me a terrific spin round. He’s winged every single hurdle. It’s just a matter of when you press the button. This ground is really dead and hard work, and I didn’t want to get going too soon. He’s won hard held.”
Kenny Alexander’s outstanding mare Honeysuckle finished her career with a hugely popular victory in the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle (2m4f) under regular partner Rachael Blackmore.
The nine-year-old had to dig deep after the final hurdle to catch the front-running Love Envoi but overhauled her rival near the line to record a snug length-and-a-half success for the Henry de Bromhead stable.
Owner-trainer Barry Connell hit the bullseye in the day’s opening contest, the Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as Marine Nationale stayed on strongly to deny favourite Facile Vega under conditional rider Michael O’Sullivan. The jockey enjoyed a day to remember as he recorded a second victory later on the card – this time claiming his 3lb – on the Gordon Elliott-trained Jazzy Matty in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (2m½f).
Willie Mullins also landed a double on the opening day courtesy of El Fabiolo in the Grade 1 Arkle Chase (2m) and Gaillard Du Mesnil in the closing National Hunt Chase (3m6f), while the Lucinda Russell-trained Corach Rambler captured the Ultima Handicap Chase (3m1f) for the second year running under an ice-cool Derek Fox.