Constitution Hill will need to return “as good as ever” in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle according to trainer Nicky Henderson, who insists he is not looking beyond the Grade One contest at Kempton Park on Boxing Day (Tuesday 26th December) for the undisputed star of Jump racing.
Last season’s Champion Hurdle hero will make his eagerly awaited return to action in the Grade One contest, which he claimed 12 months ago by 17 lengths from now-retired stablemate Epatante, after plans to run in the Fighting Fifth were dashed by the weather.
With the initial race at Newcastle falling victim to the weather, Constitution Hill was then declared a non-runner due to the ground in the rescheduled renewal of the Grade One contest at Sandown Park, which was won by the Hughie Morrison-trained Not So Sleepy.
And while the Seven Barrows handler reports the Michael Buckley-owned six-year-old to have pleased him on the gallops he admits he is taking nothing for granted despite the Blue Bresil gelding having plenty in hand over his potential five rivals on official ratings.
Henderson said: “You couldn’t run at Sandown and Kempton. It was physically not possible. You knew straight away you were going to have to sacrifice one race for the other. We decided we would stick to the original plan.
“I wasn’t going to put him in at Sandown until the very last minute. I had already said to Michael ‘I don’t think this will work’, but he said ‘let’s see’.
“You could not have possibly run in both races and that is what some people fail to understand. That is the only thing I find frustrating.
“Of course, it is frustrating when you drag him all the way to Newcastle and back again. That was bad luck. That was the original plan and that is where he would have been, and we would have been on the same leg as last year. Unfortunately, we are not.
“He was ready for Newcastle, and he is ready for Kempton. He is big, well and strong. He came in looking very well. At one stage I was a bit behind as he was so big. He took a bit longer to get the shape back into him, but that is long gone.
“He has had to do a bit more work as it is all very easy to him. His schooling is unbelievable.
“We have got to get out there and he has got to go through the motions. He has got to be as good as he ever was at Kempton, then we can look forward.”
Since the end of last season much of the talk surrounding Constitution Hill was over whether he would stay over hurdles or go chasing. However, after many discussions Henderson admits it was “blindingly obvious” to keep him to the discipline he has been so dominant in.
Henderson said: “It was genuinely considered (to switch to chasing) through the summer. But then nearer and nearer drew the time (to make a decision).
“More than anything it came down to the one question we had to ask which was if he is not going to stay the extended three and a quarter miles (the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup distance), what is the point of going chasing?
“Nico (de Boinville) and I are pretty sure that he wouldn’t stay that trip. Therefore, why go down the Arkle route when you have the Champion Hurdle. There is no need for it.
“He got two and a half at Aintree, but can a horse that can beat the clock, and everybody else, so easily over two miles seriously stay an extended three and a quarter miles?
“It is like taking a six-furlong Flat horse and saying we are now going to run it in an Ascot Gold Cup.
“You still get the same old people saying ‘boring’, but why? To me it was blindingly obvious (to stay over hurdles).”
Although neither Constitution Hill or Shishkin made it to the track at Newcastle, one thing Henderson was extremely grateful for was the outpouring of support he received from those in the sport willing to give the multiple Grade One winners a temporary home for the night.
He added: “As we have always said his temperament is such that it wouldn’t make any difference to him (the long journey to Newcastle). He had an away day, and Doncaster very kindly rescued us.
“Our only panic was finding them a bed for the night on the way back from Newcastle, where they didn’t actually get to. We stopped the box an hour short of Newcastle and that is when we were told it was off and we turned around.
“They couldn’t get home that night, and we had to find them a bed, so it was away in a manger!
“Everybody was wonderful. I did a thing for television saying I’ve got two horses roaming around the north of England with no bed and I need help. The response was brilliant.
“My plea went out and all sorts of wonderful people rang up saying ‘they can come and stay with me’.
“The trainers that rang up were very kind, but I think some had the wild idea that I was going to leave them there for a couple of months! I did point out that I wanted them back in the morning. It shows that there are some jolly good people out there.
“All sorts of racecourses said they will have them, but Doncaster was the sensible place to get off so they stayed there overnight.
“They were very pleased, and they couldn’t have been more helpful. It does make you feel good that people cared.”
Dealing with high pressure situations is nothing new to Henderson and while he insists his focus remains on Constitution Hill’s assignment on December 26th, he is giving thought to a potential plan for the rest of the season.
He added: “If it wasn’t that you guys wanted to come and talk to us or there was no pressure then it is time to give up as you have nothing to talk about.
“Sprinter Sacre was in this position when he was at his best. When he was in his first innings, and at his absolute pomp he was seriously unbeatable.
“Constitution Hill could go to Kempton, Cheltenham, for the Unibet International Hurdle which they have stuck in on Festival Trials Day, then Cheltenham and Aintree.
“I would be tempted with Ireland (at the Punchestown Festival) but you have to be careful of the ground at that time of the year.
“He won’t go to Ireland (for the Dublin Racing Festival), definitely not, but I won’t look forward until Kempton is over.”