On the row over a champion hurdler
Every sport has its share of idiots. One current England football player was, I am told, known by coaching staff at a former club as “pea” because his brain was so small. And that’s just on the field, let alone what you get if listen to any of radio’s ubiquitous fan phone-ins.
Racing is no different, as the recent furore over Constitution Hill’s target for this season demonstrated. After the horse’s magisterial Champion Hurdle romp in March, owner Michael Buckley didn’t dismiss the idea that Constitution Hill might, possibly, perhaps, maybe, potentially, conceivably, theoretically, go chasing.
Winning a lightning-fast two-mile race for hurdlers requires entirely different skills to winning a gruelling staying test over fences
Cue a frenzy of excitement about the idea. But at no point did Buckley ever say more than that he was willing to think about it. Which he did. And then decided that the horse will stick to hurdling. Constitution Hill has the potential to be acknowledged as the greatest hurdler ever, and to beat See You Then and Istabraq’s record three Champion Hurdles. Go chasing, and a very different dynamic comes into play.
As his trainer, Nicky Henderson (above, with Consitution Hill), put it when confirming the horse would stick to hurdles: “There’s no point in going chasing unless we were confident we could turn him into a Gold Cup horse and the answer was no.”
Winning a lightning-fast two-mile race for hurdlers requires entirely different skills to winning a gruelling staying test over fences for three and a quarter miles. Michael Buckley is, of course, entitled to plot whatever course he wants for his horse.
If he would rather not risk chasing and prefers to own the greatest hurdler ever, so be it.
But that didn’t stop racing fans going berserk, accusing Buckley on social media of cowardice, betrayal and all sorts of evil. Even some racing writers who should know better bemoaned how boring the decision was, as it condemns us to a series of processions in the Fighting Fifth, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle — the races mapped out for Constitution Hill.
Because obviously it’s boring watching one of the greatest horses of all time showing us why he is one of the greatest horses of all time (Bernard Levin once said there should be a “sarcasm font”, which is needed here).
Yet, the anger was targeted primarily at Nicky Henderson for denying the public the chance to see Constitution Hill over fences. Which is a familiar refrain. Back in 2020 Henderson withdrew his superstar two-mile chaser, Altior, from the Tingle Creek at Sandown on the night before the race, describing the ground as a “bottomless glue pit”. Cue outrage that he had ruined the race.
But who do they think Henderson answers to — assorted racing fans or his horses’ owners, who buy them and pay for them to be trained? More to the point, who is best placed to know what’s in a horse’s best interests — racing fans or one of the greatest jump trainers ever to have lived?
Henderson had made the mistake the year before of bowing to just this pressure from fans, against his better judgement running Altior in heavy ground at Ascot for the supposed good of the sport. Not only did the horse lose his unbeaten record, he was never the same again and retired after three more races.
It would of course have been thrilling to see Constitution Hill over fences. There’s not been a horse since Dawn Run who could even theoretically repeat her unique achievement in winning both the 1984 Champion Hurdle and the 1986 Gold Cup. So excitement about the idea was entirely understandable. But it was always fanciful, because Michael Buckley is not an idiot and listens to his trainer.
Which brings me, perhaps a bit early, to a Christmas present suggestion. Nicky Henderson: My Life in 12 Horses is one of the best racing books I’ve read in years. Built around the stories of some his greats, including Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre, Altior, See You Then and, of course, Constitution Hill, it’s a properly fascinating insight into what makes Henderson tick and how he does it. You never know, the racing fan in your life might even learn something from it.
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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