Saturday, March 2, 2024

What makes a great racehorse? Behind the scenes with Constitution Hill

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Producing jaw dropping displays is what the racing public have come to expect from Unibet Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill such has been his dominance on the track, but away from the limelight that image is a different picture altogether.

Having won over a legion of fans 12 months ago with an emphatic victory over stablemate Jonbon in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old has not looked back in what has been another flawless season to date, and he heads a field of seven for the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

To the thousands that have watched the Blue Bresil gelding live, the image they have taken away is that of a horse that revels in being centre stage, but the Constitution Hill at home is different to the one on the track according to his groom Jaydon Lee.

Already given the responsibility of looking after Shishkin, who will be bidding for his sixth Grade One success in the Ryanair Chase on Wednesday, the 21-year-old has been tasked with looking after jump racing’s latest star on a daily basis since his arrival at Seven Barrows.

And though Constitution Hill, who Lee refers to as being a “cool dude”, might be the talk of the town on the track, back in the comfort of his daily surroundings he is happy to take a more back seat role for much of the time in between races.

Lee said: “Since his very first day in the yard I’ve been the lucky one to look after Constitution Hill but, really and truthfully, he didn’t do a lot early on that made him stand out.

“He ate, slept and it was a case of repeating that. We all didn’t think too much of him so we left him to his own devices but he eventually woke up if you like in his work.

“He is quite relaxed and you can go in his box and give him a fuss for 10 or 15 minutes and then he will probably get a bit bored and not really want to know you.

“To be fair you wouldn’t pick him out to be the horse he has turned out to be, but from day one he has been a cool dude.

“You wouldn’t look at him and go wow he has entered the racecourse, you would think this hack has just arrived as he is that laid back.”

Those thinking Constitution Hill is eager to get up and go as the sun rises each morning can think againm as Lee explains jump racing’s newest star prefers hitting the snooze button on his alarm clock, although the sight of a carrot or two soon grabs his attention.

He added: “I probably see him at about 6.30am in the morning, usually asleep flat out on the floor. I try my best to get him up and muck out around him.

“That takes about 20 minutes or so then I leave him to his own devices to have his breakfast, which he rather enjoys and then really that is what I do until about 4pm in the afternoon when I see him for evening stables.

“He loves his food and he is a big fan of his hay. He gets carrots from me daily. He loves his carrots though you have to be careful of your fingers as he would have them off!”

Once Lee is finished the baton passes on to conditional jockey Sean O’Briain, who has been Constitution Hill’s work rider for much of his time since setting foot inside Seven Barrows.

Like Lee, the 23-year-old was not immediately taken by the Michael Buckley-owned gelding that was until he pressed the go button in his first piece of fast work.

He said: “I’d seen him a few times going up the gallop before I got on him and it didn’t look like he was any good. I was then put on him one day for a piece of work and I thought we are going to get lapped, then I pulled him and he just took off and I was like wow.

“It was just the turn of foot and acceleration he showed and the ease of which he did it.

“The back of the hill is one of the best gallops in the country and if you can go a good gallop from the bottom and pull away from other horses on the bridle still feeling like you are doing a half speed then they are pretty special.”

Plenty of horses have looked potential world beaters on the gallops but then transpired to be moderate on the track, however O’Briain was confident that would not be the case with Constitution Hill when heading to Sandown Park for his debut in December 2021.

He added: “My biggest worry with him was that he was going to be a bit of a morning glory. He was going to do all this flashy stuff at home then disappoint us when he went to the track but luckily enough he didn’t.

“I had high hopes for him going to Sandown the first time and I remember watching it in the boss’s office and thankfully I was right.

“A lot of people had doubts as they said after the Tolworth he didn’t beat much but they were still good horses. They might not have been up to Supreme standard but it was the way he went about doing it that.

“Coming out this season he had a lot to prove and there was a lot of anticipation. As we have gone on through the season he has backed it up every time. Everyone has come around to the fact that he is very special.”

While Constitution Hill is described as quite a laid-back character O’Briain admits that you still have to be aware of the odd playful nip while tacking him up along with being prepared to hold on tight when he is at his freshest.

He added: “When he is just stood in the stable on his own he is quite happy to stay at the back and go to sleep, but as soon as you stick the bridle on him he wants to stick his head outside the door to see what is going on.

“When you are doing up his girth he likes to have a little nip at you. It is nothing vicious or malicious, it is just a playful nip as if to say you have that strap too tight around my belly!

“When he is in full work, like he is at the moment, he is the biggest bombproof pony you could have around the yard but when he is fresh you need someone with a bit of experience on him as he does give you a good run for your money.”


WATCH: Constitution Hill’s stunning Sky Bet Supreme win from 2022 Festival

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There are no such things as a certainty in racing but at odds of 1/3 Constitution Hill is as close as they come, and both O’Briain and Lee insist it will take something special from stopping him adding a second Festival victory to his already impressive CV.

O’Briain said: “I think he is a bigger, stronger horse than he was last year. I think he is a better horse than last year and I do think he has grown and filled out in himself mentally and physically.

“Jamie Codd (jockey) was in riding out for us three or four weeks ago and I was upsides him and he asked me what I was on and I just happened to be on Constitution Hill.

“He said he had seen that horse at the sales and he said he looked half the horse back then to what he does now. He has still got to go do it as there are no certainties in this sport but we are going into it very confident.”

Lee added: “We have just got to look forward to it really. As long as he is fit healthy and well that is all I can do really. Fingers crossed he can win like he did in the Supreme last year.

“Everyone is expecting another big performance but we all know whatever price he is there are no certainties in racing.

“As long as he gets there fit and well on the day we should be very hopeful and if he can produce anything like last year we will be very pleased.”

One man that has seen all the modern day greats pass through the yard is Henderson’s driver of more than 20 years Neil Taylor.

And while the avid Carlisle United fan echoes similar thoughts as to the sort of character Constitution Hill is in and around the yard he hopes he can reward the work behind the scenes put in by the likes of Lee and O’Briain with a Champion Hurdle victory.

Taylor said: “Everybody could see when the likes of Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre used to work together up the Farringdon Road that they worked smartly but this fellow just seems to have another gear.

“He is just such a laid back horse and when he walks through the yard he is like one of the boys. There is not a bother on him. He is just so chilled.

“There is lots of positivity in the yard and he is on everybody’s mind. It would be great if he could now go and win the Champion Hurdle for everyone in the team.”


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