Monday medical the ‘acid test’ of Constitution Hill’s chance of making Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle

Prospects mount that Irish-trained runners will outnumber the home defence over festival’s four days

Cross-channel hopes of avoiding a drubbing at next week’s Cheltenham Festival could hinge on the outcome of tests on Britain’s top star Constitution Hill on Monday.

Nicky Henderson’s unbeaten star will undergo blood tests to see if can recover from illness in time to defend his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday week.

Constitution Hill threw betting on hurdling’s championship into turmoil with a dire workout at Kempton last week after which he was found to have significant levels of mucus in his lungs.

Willie Mullins’s State Man has taken over at the top of ante-post betting and although Henderson has said it will take something of a miracle for his charge to have recovered in time, he isn’t ruling out such a surprise.


A scope on Friday revealed there was no more mucus in Constitution Hill’s lungs although the horse was still described as unwell.

“He will have a quiet weekend and we propose to take a further blood test on Monday which I believe will be the acid test,” said Henderson.

With the Champion Hurdle betting in upheaval, Gordon Elliott’s Irish Point has proved popular with punters and is now a general 5-1 shot for the race, despite also holding an entry in the Stayers. The prospect of testing ground conditions could mean he opts for the shorter race.

Constitution Hill was the standard bearer of the home defence at Cheltenham and if he is forced to miss out it will remove a vital quality ingredient from an already lopsided looking Anglo-Irish battle. A new quantity element to the festival could also be in play next week.

For the first time, Irish-trained horses make up the majority of current entries for Cheltenham’s 28 races. Of the more than 1,200 entries still in the festival mix, more than 50 per cent (655) are based in this country. It means the raiders could outnumber the home team across the four days of action, a once unthinkable scenario.

Constitution Hill had been one of just three British-based favourites in some ante-post lists and should he miss out fears will inevitably arise about the potential for a similar outcome to 2021 when Irish horses won a record 21 races.

Paddy Power are going just 3-1 about there being 22 or more Irish-trained winners next week.

The countdown to the biggest week of the National Hunt season will continue at Leopardstown on Monday with some festival contenders set to work after racing.

“We have private gallops after racing tomorrow, and then the following morning, with about 80 horses between the two sessions,” said Leopardstown boss Tim Husbands on Sunday.

Paul Townend is a 2-5 favourite to be top jockey at Cheltenham and is set for a couple of spins on Monday, including in a Beginners Chase on Horantzau D’airy.

This one is making his debut over fences and hasn’t raced since finishing out of the money in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle three months ago.

Townend’s presence alone is a sign of confidence in his jumping although he faces a formidable opponent in Aspire Tower.

The former 160-rated hurdler has a couple of chase starts under his belt including when runner-up to Zanahiyr at Thurles last time.

Townend should have better luck with Rath Gaul Boy in the opener while Mullins’s bumper hope, Magic McColgan, is bred to be good as a sister to the King George hero Tornado Flyer.

There was one reverse for the all-conquering Mullins team at the weekend with news that the brilliant but fragile Ferny Hollow is set to miss the entire Spring festival season with a new injury.

The 2020 Cheltenham winner returned from a near-800-day absence to score at Naas a week ago and earn quotes for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. That option was unlikely to be taken up but Mullins confirmed other avenues are also now closed.

“He’s going to miss Aintree and Punchestown, I think. You might see him in the Galway Plate, or something like that maybe. I think he’s going to be out for six to eight weeks,” he said.

“It’s a completely new injury. He’s just one of those individuals that gives his all and hurts himself when he does. It’s unfortunate, but I think we’ll have him back for the summer. We could maybe head to France with him or something like that,” he added.

In other news, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) has said it is implementing an “ongoing programme of reform and transformation” as part of changes in team structures and lines of reporting at the body.

The regulator was responding to a Sunday Independent report that revealed an unpublished internal report in 2021 found part of the management organisation structure at the IHRB was not fit for purpose.

It also outlined concerns about a poor office atmosphere at the IHRB and how dignity at work was “not always respected”.

Former chief executive Denis Egan left shortly afterwards with a controversial €384,870 payment that breached early retirement scheme rules.

The IHRB confirmed on Sunday that a Prism report was commissioned and carried out over three months in 2020.

New chief executive Darragh O’Loughlin was appointed in 2022 and an IHRB statement said: “Further work is under way to record and report our compliance with the code of practice for governance of state bodies. The IHRB continues to refine our structures and processes in line with our new statement of strategy 2024-27.”

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column