No lights, no brakes and a driver who can’t see – my hair-raising ride with Nicky Henderson to see Constitution Hill
“WE’VE got no lights, no brakes . . . and a driver who can’t see.”
Not exactly what you want to hear from Nicky Henderson when crammed into his ancient beaten-up Land Rover while climbing the side of a steep, muddy hill on one of the wettest days of the year.
After life-changing treatment to arrest his deteriorating eyesight last year, it appears Hendo is much more confident behind the wheel than he used to be.
And on the evidence of a recent trip to Seven Barrows, he’d have no problem turning his hand to rallying if the training gig ever went belly-up.
The horse we had all braved the elements to see was, of course, Constitution Hill, the unbeaten champion hurdler who makes his long-awaited return at Kempton on Boxing Day.
And there were plenty of eyes on King George hopeful Shishkin, the horse who made headlines for all the wrong reasons when planting himself at Ascot last month, too.
It never gets old watching racehorses being put through their paces on the gallops, especially ones as good as these in an historic setting like Seven Barrows.
But getting to the top of the five-furlong gallop, which is uphill from the moment they leave the yard, was easier said than done.
Especially in the middle of a torrential rainstorm and in a car that could conk out at any moment.
“It did actually break down completely the other day,” Henderson says.
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“We took the horses to gallop a couple of miles away and when I got back in and turned the key there were no signs of life.
“I had to walk back which wasn’t very fun and we left the car up on the top of the hill for a couple of days.
“Normally if you did that it would be nicked — but there was never any danger of someone stealing it.”
However, there was a slight element of danger as Hendo slalomed the car across a soaking wet field, through massive puddles and into a gap in the treeline so thin you felt it necessary to breathe in.
“Everyone comfortable? Let me know if you see a tree, won’t you?”
The perilous journey to the top of Sparsholt Hill was well worth it, even if the weather was absolutely vile.
As the impressive, 40-strong string came up the hill in a staggered formation, some in pairs, some on their own, you could easily have missed Constitution Hill.
He is a quiet, unassuming, laidback horse at home, who, in Hendo’s words, eats, works, sleeps, repeats.
“Training him is like driving this car, you point it in the right direction and away you go.”
Not so much in this weather, mind, when the default direction was sideways. When the six-year-old steps foot on a racetrack it’s a very different story altogether.
Given what we know now, it’s incredible the horse went off 85-40 second favourite on his first hurdle start in December 2021.
He bolted up by 14 lengths, followed up at the same track a few weeks later and confirmed himself a superstar in the Supreme at Cheltenham, a status he solidified in the Champion Hurdle in March.
There was speculation over the summer he could go novice chasing this season but Hendo’s heart was never in it — it was hurdles all the way for him.
He said: “More than anything, it came down to the question about whether he would stay the Gold Cup trip, and Nico and I are pretty sure he wouldn’t.
“So we thought, why go down the Arkle route when you’ve got a champion hurdler? There was no need for it.
“You got the same old people coming out saying it’s boring, but if you find him boring I can’t help you. To me it was blindingly obvious.”
He admits Constitution Hill, who will go off around 1-10 in the Christmas Hurdle, was slow to come to hand this winter after putting on a few extra pounds during his summer holiday. Didn’t we all.
And the horse has already had an awkward start to the year, having had to spend the night in Doncaster after Newcastle was abandoned when he was an hour away from the track.
The disruption of the last few weeks has only added to notoriously nervy Henderson’s feeling of anxiety heading into the Festive period.
He said: “What happened with him and Shishkin being stuck in the north the other day was not ideal.
“My plea went out and all sorts of wonderful people rang up saying they could go and stay with them.
“I think the trainers who phoned up had a bit of a wild idea I was going to leave them there for a couple of months — I insisted I’d need them back the next morning!
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“He definitely took a little longer to come to hand this year, I think he did rather too well during his summer off and got very big. He looks very, very well now, though. He will probably still come on for the Christmas Hurdle but his schooling has been sensational, if not a little terrifying.
“I will be horrible to be around on Christmas day because there will be a lot of nerves going to Kempton. Once we have it out of the way I will start looking forward.”
And then there is Shishkin, who will tackle the King George without a prep run after naughtily refusing to race at Ascot, the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle was snowed off and he was then pulled out of Sandown because of heavy ground.
Hendo is confident the nine-year-old will jump off with the rest of the field this time — but he is not so confident about winning one of the biggest races of the year on what will be the nine-year-old’s first start of the season.
He said: “I was thinking, maybe I could hide in the trees next to the three-mile start with a hunting horn and blow it as the tapes go off to make sure he starts?
“All joking aside, I expect him to be fine this time.
“He can just be a bit stubborn in the early part of each season.
“The BHA getting rid of the Long Tom whip for the starters is absolutely ridiculous, I cannot understand it.
“I expect him to run a very nice race but you have to say winning a King George first time out is impossible.
“I’m not afraid of the opposition, you just have to be realistic.
“He still has loads of ability and he is a proper three-miler, we know that now.”
We make it back down the hill in one piece, sighs of relief all round.
But for Hendo, there will only be relief if Constitution Hill gets the job done in two days’ time.
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