‘Exceptional’ Constitution Hill soars to new heights
Extraordinary is the word Nicky Henderson tends to use when describing Constitution Hill and he was at it again after his stable star soared to new heights in the Champion Hurdle – the day one feature the trainer has made his own.
He was capturing it for a record-extending ninth time, but few of his previous winners displayed the dominance of Constitution Hill, who was an extraordinary force in last year’s Supreme and followed up in similar style here.
He was entitled to, given he had not come off the bridle in five starts, but he faced a quality rival in State Man, who was on top in the County Hurdle last year and has swept all before him at the highest level in Ireland this season.
Sent off the 4-11 favourite, Constitution Hill powered clear of State Man to win by nine lengths, but you suspect that margin could have been wider had Nico de Boinville desired.
He is not one for unnecessary fuss or showboating, but his hulking partner is more than capable of providing fireworks even if it looks like a full tank of rocket fuel is still under the bonnet.
“He’s just an extraordinary horse,” said Henderson, touched by the electric atmosphere that accompanied an electric performance.
“You can’t believe at this stage of his life he’s doing things like this. You always worry something can go wrong and there’s pressure. It’s fun, but underneath it’s not quite as much fun as you think it is. When it’s over, I promise you, it is though.”
Henderson trains the son of Blue Bresil for longtime buddy Michael Buckley, who was persuaded to buy him by former Seven Barrows jockey Barry Geraghty.
Geraghty was convinced he had a top prospect on his hands, but Constitution Hill’s laid-back temperament left his trainer worried he would not make the grade.
That changed when his team – led by groom Jaydon Lee and daily rider Sean O’Briain – unlocked a turn of foot that has had Henderson eulogising ever since.
“He can be very long,” the 72-year-old added of a prodigious leap at the last, when you sensed much of the sport was just longing for that jump to go smoothly.
Henderson has trained a people’s horse in Sprinter Sacre, who was a sensational two-mile chaser derailed by heart problems but then coaxed back to full health for a fairytale chapter when he secured a second Champion Chase.
In Constitution Hill, he has a horse who may – perhaps remarkably – possess more raw talent than Sprinter Sacre, but already seems on his level when it comes to the racing public.
“You can do anything with this horse,” Henderson purred. “You could jump a fence, you could go three miles. He has had six races now and has barely come off the bridle, but it won’t last forever so let’s enjoy it while we can.
“Sprinter did amazing things for us and the emotion behind him for his comeback was unbelievable. This horse has got into those echelons after six races. It’s an extraordinary thing to happen but he’s an extraordinary horse. I said to Nico let’s keep it as simple as you possibly can and he did.”
De Boinville, who joins an elite group in riding winners of the Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Queen Mother Champion Chase, was on by far the best horse but his role in the success should not be underplayed and, in his understated style, he said: “I could feel them all coming to two out, but he’s just winged every single hurdle. It’s just a matter of when you push the button.”
Buckley, like Henderson, expressed relief that button was in full working order after adding another of Cheltenham’s key races to his CV after Finian’s Rainbow landed the 2012 Champion Chase.
“I first came here when I was 19 when the three big races were the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup and I never thought I’d own a horse let alone have a runner in this or have a winner in this,” said the entrepreneur, an owner since the 1970s.
“I can’t say I’ve had a better day on the racecourse ever.”
Willie Mullins, who trains State Man, probably has, but he was not deflated.
“We ran very well, we’ve just met a proper champion hurdler so we’ve no excuses,” he said. “Well done to Nicky and Michael and all the team. Nico gave him a brave man’s ride, he had the confidence he was on the best horse and that was the race he rode – I’m delighted for all connections.”
Constitution Hill was Henderson’s 73rd festival winner and usurped Sir Ken (2-5) in 1953 as the shortest-priced Champion Hurdle hero.
Those, however, were mere footnotes for Henderson, who was happy to drink in all the adulation, which he did by urging the six-year-old to be brought closer to a crowd that revelled in the gesture.
“I’ve watery eyes, I always have had and I always will have, but that would bring a tear to most eyes,” he said. “This horse is going to extraordinary levels at the moment and we are lucky to be the custodian of him but a lot of responsibility goes with it.”
There’s that word extraordinary again, and you get the feeling it will not be the last time Henderson uses it when it comes to Constitution Hill.
All roads now lead to Merseyside, with the Aintree Hurdle next up having been a long-standing target this season, but who will dare take him on after this performance?