Stablemates Constitution Hill and Epatante are set to face each other in Saturday's Grade One Betfair Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, live on Sky Sports Racing; Not So Sleepy, Pied Piper, Tommy's Oscar and Voix Du Reve complete field of six
Wednesday 23 November 2022 14:44, UK
Sky Sports Racing's Alex Hammond reflects on a difficult day for Ascot last weekend and looks ahead to Constitution Hill's clash with Epatante in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
Last week I was waxing lyrical about the autumnal conditions and how we should all be embracing the end of summer. Well, that didn't age particularly well, did it? As a result, you may have to forgive me if I repeat myself at times this week. Ascot staged their November meeting last weekend, and whilst it was November in name, it was not in nature.
That resulted in Constitution Hill, L'Homme Presse and Edwardstone being pulled out of their respective races and racegoers feeling pretty hard done by. I know this because I had several come up to me to say so.
Watch the Grade One Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle from Newcastle live on Sky Sports Racing on November 26
Before we throw stones at those in charge of conditions at Ascot, let's just consider the problems they faced. We have suffered the driest summer in decades and water levels are dangerously low. The climate is changing at an alarmingly fast rate and despite more than 41mm of rain in the week, and watering taking place on Friday evening, the ground dried out and was too fast for the aforementioned trio.
This was a situation where no one was to blame other than mother nature herself. I have huge sympathy with racecourse officials, trainers, owners, and racegoers, as we were all denied the chance to see these magnificent racehorses in action, competing for excellent prize money. Could that change this weekend? It could, but I'm loath to make any promises given the dry forecast once again.
Having said that Constitution Hill heads for Saturday's Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and L'Homme Presse could also make the journey to the northeast to run in the Betfair Exchange Rehearsal Handicap Chase. We are likely to have to wait until the beginning of next month to see Edwardstone who now has the Tingle Creek as his seasonal starting point.
Nicky Henderson has come in for plenty of criticism in the past for swerving races with his stable stars. I don't blame him for bypassing Ascot last weekend as the prevailing conditions were simply not suitable for last year's leading novice hurdler and others according to those who know them best.
However, it was not unsafe as suggested by some, and I do criticise Henderson's choice of language in the aftermath of the high-profile withdrawal. To say his horse would have come back from Ascot "wounded" is dangerous and inflammatory and a better-worded statement would have been more appropriate.
For someone who uses words on a daily basis to try to inform and communicate, it's not always easy to pluck the most appropriate in the heat of the moment so maybe that explains why he resorted to using sensational comments in a live interview.
My views don't make me an outlier, in fact if you are a regular reader of racing blogs and a viewer of podcasts then these views are widely held. So, I'm not telling you something you may not have already heard, but I feel strongly enough about the future of our sport to make my voice heard amongst others.
Let's move on from that and talk about the upcoming racing. Constitution Hill will have to take on his stablemate and dual Fighting Fifth winner Epatante. There's no way Nicky Henderson would have chosen that scenario given the choice and this is most definitely Plan B.
It's a nightmare for a trainer to run two horses from the same stable against each other in this scenario because you have two sets of owners to keep happy, and unless there's a dead-heat (as there was in this race last year) one set of owners are likely to be less happy than the other.
Speaking of that dead-heat from twelve months ago, Not So Sleepy and Epatante could not be separated on the line and the duo face off again. The former is an enigmatic soul and at the age of 10 is entering his vintage years.
Having said that, he has plenty of talent should he choose to use it and providing he doesn't cause the same issues he did in the 2020 running of this contest when unseating his rider at the first flight of hurdles and proceeding to carry Silver Streak out of the race at the second flight, all will be well.
Tommy's Oscar has been running over fences, with the Arkle his main target this season. His trainer Ann Hamilton isn't against reverting to hurdles for this though as she trains just 20 miles up the road and there is decent prize money for all finishers on Saturday given the size of the field.
The only other horse remaining in the field is outsider Voix Du Reve and he has plenty to do to trouble the protagonists.
Let's be honest, if Constitution Hill turns up, he'll be hard to beat, but I won't be counting that chicken until its hatched.
Last week I said we were approaching "Venetia time". Well, since then the floodgates have opened (in her yard if not the clouds), and there have been a steady stream of winners. In fact, at the time of writing, four of her last seven runners have won and I expect by the time you read this there will have been more.
Again, it is totally understandable that Venetia wouldn't want to run L'Homme Presse at Ascot. As I mentioned last week, this is a horse that has had a considerable amount of time on the side-lines with a tendon injury and like Constitution Hill, the good ground wasn't suitable to run him on.
If he runs at Newcastle, he'll have top weight of 12-stone to carry, which is no mean feat. Hey Big Spender was the last horse carry top weight to victory in 2014. Junior also achieved it in 2012 with the same burden. Neither horse won under rules after that, but L'Homme Presse is a different kettle of fish altogether as a young, progressive chaser with bigger fish to fry before the season is out.
Another horse on the up is second favourite Into Overdrive who has won five of his 10 outings, including his last four starts. The most recent of those came in Grade Three company at Wetherby and off his very handy weight on Saturday he could be a threat to the favourite.
Nicky Henderson loves Chantry House and says he's a stronger and bigger horse this season at the age of eight. He could end up in the Grand National in the spring, and he has a few options for his seasonal return, so it remains to be seen if it's at Newcastle. Sky Bet have L'Homme Presse as their 3/1 favourite and Into Overdrive at 9/2 next best.
Newbury also host their biggest jump fixture of the season on Saturday with the newly named Coral Gold Cup Handicap Chase the big race of the afternoon. Declarations haven't been made at this stage, so we still don't know the final line-up, but Joseph O'Brien's 8/1 shot Busselton is one to consider.
He'll handle most conditions and decent ground won't be a worry. He's tough, versatile, and consistent. The Paul Nicholls trained Threeunderthrufive had a nice prep over hurdles on his reappearance and is another who won't mind the ground. He's 7/1 with Sky Bet.
Who doesn't love a speculative each way bet on a big-priced outsider? Well, this is probably about as speculative as it gets and I've had horses I've followed over a cliff in the past, but I've always liked Lieutenant Rocco and at 33/1 with Sky Bet, I can't resist taking a chance that he may return to form in the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Memorial Handicap Chase at Newbury.
This will be his second start after a wind operation and that's a stat I like. He's changed stables six times and he's still only seven, but I feel there's plenty of ability in this horse and hope he can find some consistency now.