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Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy discuss Constitution Hill chances in Champion Hurdle.
Currently 1-3 favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, the six year old could line up next Tuesday (March 14th) as one of the shortest priced favourites in Festival history.
Trainer Nicky Henderson – with Sprinter Sacre and Altior on his CV – knows a thing or two about handling pressure and with a record eight Champion Hurdle victories to his name is just the man to get the best from the poster boy for Jump racing in 2023.
Since making a triumphant debut at Sandown Park in December 2021, Constitution Hill has gone on to win four Grade Ones, including at The Festival 12 months ago when defeating his stablemate Jonbon by 22 lengths in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
For all the talk that surrounds Constitution Hill, who was last seen winning the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, the Seven Barrows handler knows he must pass his latest assignment before he can be considered a great.
Henderson said: “One must not get too carried away at this stage of life. He is only a young horse that has had five races in his life, six if you include the point-to-point that he didn’t win.
“Compared to some of these other horses he has got quite a long way to go, but visually he has been very impressive every time. You can’t fault what he has done but this has got to continue.
“We have been lucky enough to train a lot of nice horses and when these sort of things come along you find yourself being the minder of a piece of public property.
“Sprinter Sacre almost certainly was, Altior almost certainly was and when they come along and are like that they are no longer just yours. We just look after them and we really want everybody to enjoy them.
“We have probably got two more runs this season as if everything goes right here then he could run over two and a half (miles) at Aintree, but we are only worrying about one thing at the moment and that is the Champion Hurdle.”
Results on the track are what distinguish the great from the good. However, work behind the scenes is equally important and in Constitution Hill the six-times champion Jump trainer feels he has the perfect individual to deal with.
Henderson added: “This is why he is such a good horse as his whole demeanour is so laid back. Nothing bothers him and nothing gets him very excited.
“You wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd, whereas Sprinter and Altior you definitely would as they would tell you who they were. He is a good looking horse but Sprinter was the most beautiful horse you would see and he knew it. He went everywhere with that swagger.
“Constitution Hill doesn’t do that. He eats, he sleeps, he gets up and does what work you ask him to and he goes back to bed. It is all very straightforward.
“This isn’t a beauty parade so it doesn’t matter. If it was I’m afraid they would finish in front of him, but he is growing into a fine horse and he is starting to get the idea that he is a bit different.”
With a multitude of top-class equine talent passing through his hands since taking out a license in 1978, Henderson could be forgiven if the process became routine, but he insists the buzz of dealing with an outstanding individual remains as strong as ever.
He said: “I like the involvement in a horse like this as you feel like you have achieved something, and people want to be part of a horse that has touched them somewhere.
“Horseracing is still a great sport and there is a great community involved. It is a great game that a lot of people really enjoy. What they do is appreciate very good people and very good horses.
“Everybody wants to know what he is up to in the village (Lambourn) but there are a lot of other horses here, and in other yards, that are just as important that have big days ahead.
“We all want him to be this superstar. We have been lucky having the Sprinters and Altiors, however you never get blasé about it.”
Not only does Henderson hope that Constitution Hill can light up day one of The Festival for the thousands packed in the stands, he also believes it would be a fitting success for long-standing owner and friend Michael Buckley.
He added: “Michael has been with us since the year dot and he has been a wonderful supporter. We’ve had good times and bad times and we’ve had a lot of fun, but there have been a lot of tears and laughter as well.
“Here is this dream and it is still alive. We have got to make the most of it while the dream is still alive and we pray everything goes right for him.
“Getting him ready and being fresh shouldn’t be a problem as he went to Cheltenham straight from the Tolworth Hurdle (at Sandown Park in January) last year, which is similar timing.
“He is pretty smart when he is fresh and he is very easy to handle at home. We just have to hope everything stays in one piece.”
One person who knows better than most what it is like to train a superstar is now-retired trainer Henrietta Knight, who between 2002 and 2004 saddled Best Mate to glory on three occasions in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Despite calling it a day in 2012, Knight is still heavily involved in the sport and believes that Constitution Hill, who she describes as a ‘crown jewel’, is the young pretender the sport is crying out for.
She said: “I think racing and the country like to have a horse they can associate with and he is that horse.
“I think he is the horse that will capture the imagination of the people rather like Best Mate did. He was the people’s horse and I think that is what Constitution Hill is becoming.
“He is on everybody’s lips and he is the first horse that is mentioned when it comes to Cheltenham. He has not run many times, but what he has done has been spectacular. At the moment the sky seems to be the limit. I think it is the ease with which he has been winning his races that makes him stand out.
“He is very important for Jump racing, and for the sport as a whole. He is the young pretender and this is what we need a horse like this and I think it is very important we have a horse like this.
“From the days of having Best Mate it is very exciting as you are sitting on a crown jewel. Nicky is a top trainer and he deserves a really good horse like this again. It is lovely for him and it definitely adds to the story.
“Constitution Hill is starting to become the people’s horse and Nicky is the people’s trainer.”
Since taking over the terrestrial television coverage at the start of 2017, ITV Racing has been fortunate enough to be able to tell the story on screen of the likes of Enable, Tiger Roll and Stradivarius to the thousands watching at home.
And while not putting Constitution Hill in that bracket just yet, lead presenter Ed Chamberlin is confident he has what it takes to become the next horse that can take the sport to the next level only very few can.
He said: “People often ask me what our job is on television and we want to make racing as popular as we can and as welcoming as we can for as many people as we can, but to do that you need those hooks and there is no better hook than the horse itself.
“We’ve been very lucky since we took over on ITV as we have had three big ones in Enable, Stradivarius and Tiger Roll. They have really captured the public’s imagination and Constitution Hill could be the next horse to do that.
“We mustn’t get carried away now as he is a long way off it yet, but he has now got this stage on Champion Hurdle day for people to go wow and as Mick Fitzgerald keeps telling me this horse has got that wow factor.”
One man who knows what it takes to win the Champion Hurdle is now retired 20-time champion Jump jockeySir Anthony McCoy, who landed the prize with Make A Stand (1997), Brave Inca (2006) and Binocular (2010).
McCoy said: “We all see horses and sports people that have moments of brilliance and Frankel’s 2000 Guineas (in 2011) was one of the wow moments.
“As jump horses you have to achieve a lot to elevate yourself from the back page to the front. There have only been few jumpers that have been capable of doing that – other than Desert Orchid, Red Rum, Kauto Star and Best Mate there have not been many.
“I look back at the hurdlers in recent times Hurricane Fly is the best most recent one while Istabraq is the best one I’ve seen in my time. What Constitution Hill has done the last two times has had the wow factor about it in the ease in which he has won.
“He has beaten a good mare in Epatante a couple of times, but after the Champion Hurdle we will get a different reading as if he is able to do the same to them to those rivals then he might be able to get on the front page.
“There is no doubt he is a talented horse and if you picked one of the jump horses you would love to own or train he would be the pretender you would pick that could be the superstar.
“Hopefully, Constitution Hill can live up to his reputation and deliver that success under Nico de Boinville that we all want to see happen.”