Whatever you might have read in the papers, or been advised by experts on the Cheltenham Festival preview circuit, the safest bet of the week isn’t Constitution Hill, or Mighty Potter, or Shishkin, or any other horse for that matter.
The certainty is that Willie Mullins will be crowned leading trainer at the meeting for a 10th time. He sent out a record 10 winners last year and he’s a short price to at least equal that tally. Another 12 (not inconceivable) would bring up his career century.
He is omnipresent, fielding favourites in most of the 28 races and even if one of the above blow out, there’s a Mullins runner hovering at their shoulders, waiting to pounce.
It’s impossible to find a chink in Nicky Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hot favourite Constitution Hill’s armour – his dominance is almost Frankel-esque – but if there is a way through, State Man is most likely to find it. The rest have a mountain to climb, never mind a hill.
Mullins is confident of a big show. He has always rated State Man as a champion-in-waiting and though he probably wasn’t expecting Constitution Hill to be quite so brilliant, he believes his boy has even more to offer than he has so far and is still very much in the game.
How good is Constitution Hill? He could be the shortest-priced winner ever of the Champion Hurdle. Is he all that?
The thing is, we won’t know how good he is until he is truly tested and nothing, in four Grade One contests, has finished within 12 lengths of him so far. On all the evidence, he is one of the greats.
“He’s freakish,” says Henderson. “He could be a freak, but it’s all to play for,” counters his Irish friend and rival, well up for the tussle.
Having bigged up Mullins, and by extension the Irish challenge this week, there’s a fair chance that Henderson will end day one with the most winners on the board; Jonbon (Arkle Trophy), Marie’s Rock and Epatante (Mares’ Hurdle) and Mister Coffey (National Hunt Chase) are all fit and fancied.
Jonbon beat Mullins’s El Fabiolo over hurdles at Aintree last spring and it should be a close call again in the Arkle, though the latter has arguably achieved more over fences this season.
Marie’s Rock is going for back-to-back Mares’ Hurdle victories and though Epatante and, of course, Honeysuckle, will be tougher nuts to crack, Nico de Boinville’s partner seems to have taken her form to a higher level still.
Mullins may have the first and last words with Facile Vega in the Supreme Hurdle and the classy Gaillard Du Mensil in the National Hunt Chase, although Henderson is sweet on Mister Coffey’s chances in the finale.
It would be no surprise if Scottish raider Corach Rambler took the Ultima Chase, a race he won in such dramatic fashion 12 months ago.
But preference is for Gary Moore’s Nassalam, who signalled that a step up to three miles would be just the ticket when finishing stoutly to be third over a shorter trip at the course on New Year’s Day.
Cheltenham tips 2023, day 1
- 1.30pm: Facile Vega 5-2
- 2.10pm: El Fabiolo 13-8
- 2.50pm: Nassalam (Next Best) 9-1
- 3.30pm: Constitution Hill 4-11
- 4.10pm: Marie’s Rock 5-2
- 4.50pm: Romancero Le Dun (Best Bet) 40-1
- 5.30pm: Mister Coffey (Each Way) 10-1