What it takes to make a champion – by those in the Constitution Hill camp

Charlie Morlock, Assistant trainer 
Morlock, 60, assisted Nicky Henderson, trainer of Constitution Hill, for 10 years before training in his own right for 13 years. He returned to Henderson in 2011 as a permanent assistant. “He was tired of training a bunch of twentysomethings who picked his brains, pinched his owners and b——d off so wanted someone more permanent,” Henderson says. He is the trainer’s eyes and ears, both a link and filter between the yard and the guv’nor. “Which means I get it in the ear from above and below,” he says. 

“I liaise with the secretary, travelling department, lads on the ground, and carry out basic veterinary care, from minor lamenesses to mild colic. Beyond that, we get the vet in. “Constitution Hill doesn’t come up on my worries list, he could be here six months and you’d hardly notice him. It is the bad horses which have to be trained to the limit and race on the cusp, so they are more prone to injury. You’d like to think, to use an awful car analogy, that he rarely goes into the red on the revs counter.”

Jayden Lee, Groom 
Brought up in Leamington Spa, Lee, 21, had no contact with racing but knew someone who worked at Warwick Racecourse, got tickets to go racing there one day and was instantly hooked. After school, he went to the British Racing School in Newmarket and joined Henderson when he left. On work experience for Robin Dickin, the Warwickshire trainer let him sit on a moderate horse (rated 77 by the handicapper) and said confidently it was the best he would ever sit on. He now not only looks after Constitution Hill (rated 173) but Shishkin (174), favourite for the Ryanair Chase on Thursday, who he also rides out every day. 

“I rode Constitution Hill out when he came on a week’s ‘trial’ and gave him half a squeeze,” recalls Lee. “I thought he was decent, so I put my hand up for him when he came into the yard full-time. He was ideal for someone to look after who didn’t have much experience. He’s pretty clean and tidy in his stable and doesn’t trash the place very often. He’s a complete star to take racing, he’s no trouble and enjoys the day out. “Shishkin probably has a bit more about him. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll let you know about it, especially when he’s fresh. I do have to pinch myself. A lot of people go through their whole careers in racing not finding a very good horse, one’s a dream but two’s unbelievable.”

Sean O’Briain, Work rider 
Brought up in Lusk just outside Dublin, O’Briain learnt to ride with Barry Geraghty’s parents and started riding out for local trainer Ado McGuinness aged 10. He moved to Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard 2½ years ago and took out his conditional jockey’s licence a year ago. He rode his first winner, quickly followed by his second, a fortnight ago. Famously, Nico de Boinville, Henderson’s first jockey and now Constitution Hill’s rider, used to be better known for riding out stable star Sprinter Sacre until, as a conditional, he won the Gold Cup on Coneygree and his career was up and running. O’Briain is hoping lightning strikes twice. 

“Constitution Hill is just about the most straightforward horse in the yard,” he says. “He makes your job very easy. When he comes in in the autumn, he can be a bit of a boyo but there’s nothing dirty about it, it’s just his way of saying he’s fresh and feeling good about himself. “The buzz of riding him work is instant. I can’t imagine I’ll ever ride a horse like him again in my lifetime. I might encounter something very good but not with his engine. The key with him is that he knows when to use it and when not to. However, even though it looks easy, he puts a lot into it, 110 per cent.”      

Richard Nicholas, Travelling head lad 
Nicholas, 59, has spent a lifetime in racing working for trainers such as David Elsworth, Toby Balding and Charlie Egerton, before joining Henderson as second travelling head lad to the legendary Johnny Worrall before taking over when he retired. He has an HGV licence and the yard’s Mercedes horsebox can take up to seven horses. “I do everything on the racing side, from getting the racing tack ready, the colours, the horses’ manes,” he says. “Cheltenham week, I’ll be in the yard at 6am and leave it at 9.30pm, having mucked out the lorry, fuelled up, cleaned the tack and colours. I’m responsible for all the tack like the bridles, breast plates, paddock sheets, everything except the saddle, which is the jockey’s.”

Mick and Sam Towell, Farrier father and son 
Towell Snr, 58, has been a farrier for 40-years plus. His father worked at Seven Barrows as Peter Walwyn’s travelling headlad, he was plonked on a horse as a teenager, did not like it but was intrigued when he saw the farrier at work. It is physical work and he broke his jaw being kicked and has undergone a back operation. “Wear and tear,” he says. At this time of year, father and son are in the yard seven days a week, Sam arriving at 7am for the rare occasion a horse has lost a shoe in the night. They have a break for lunch and will then be in the yard all afternoon. In late summer, the horses are shod with steel shoes which last a good while, but at this time of year most of the horses are wearing their equivalent of running shoes, lightweight aluminium plates which last about three weeks and cost £75 a set. 

Mick will go to Cheltenham on Tuesday but as a spectator. “There’s plenty of cover there if a horse loses a shoe,” he says. “Constitution Hill likes to be shod in the afternoon when it’s quieter,” he adds. “He had his racing plates done last Tuesday, a week out. You need a couple of days for them to bed in and smooth off the edges Does losing a shoe in a race affect a horse? “Horses like Constitution Hill, Jonbon and Shishkin have feet like iron, I think with the adrenalin flowing, they’d hardly notice it.”

Nick Bishop, Feed man 
Bishop, 58, started out as a stable lad, left racing for seven years to become a supermarket butcher, returned and now feeds horses rather than humans. These days, horse feed is carefully formulated by a number of feed companies and delivered in 25kg sacks each week, along with 100 sacks of carrots and bags of alfalfa for roughage. Feeding 150 horses is a bit more complex than feeding the 5,000 – Henderson takes 250 tonnes of 14 per cent Horsecare nuts from Red Mills, the Irish feed merchant which also supplies Willie Mullins.    “If I get it right, they’re fit and well, and if I don’t, they’re not,” he says. “Roughly, they get a bowl [5lb] for breakfast, a bowl for lunch and two bowls for tea but I feed individually to how they look. If they don’t eat, that’s a struggle. Some like it in a bowl on the floor, some in the manger, so you play around with that. “I start at 4.15am – that’s my choice. It takes two hours preparing their supper and I’d label each bucket with a horse’s name. Constitution Hill doesn’t always lick his manger clean, depending on what I’ve fed him. If he leaves three-quarters of a bowl, I’ll back off a bit. But he might eat up for five days and then leave a double handful.”

Rob Kay, Gallop man 
There are 400 acres of grass, a six-furlong all-weather gallop, and a Wexford-sand ring and schooling ground to be looked after year round. That responsibility falls on Kay, 60, who used to be a polo groundsman until he saw an advert for this job in the Farmers’ Weekly 15 years ago. Only Bishop beats him into the yard in the morning and his horsepower is a McCormick X6040 tractor. Starting at 5.30am, he prepares the all-weather gallop by harrowing it. Last week, one of his most important tasks was to water the schooling ground to make it safe, because, due to a lack of rain, it had gone firm. This he did with a water bowser. Because of the forecast cold snap, Henderson brought schooling of the Cheltenham horses, including Constitution Hill, to last Monday. The wetter the better is Kay’s motto.

Believe the hype: Constitution Hill is in a class of his own

By Marcus Armytage

If one day boasting 95 runners across seven races can really be all about one horse, then it is – ironically in an era of Irish domination – the British-trained Constitution Hill who is expected to cement his place among the winter greats by being victorious in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

In him we have great expectations. Few horses, on only their sixth start under rules, have the potential to make the impact that Constitution Hill would if he posts another wide margin over the best opposition that can be mustered on the first day of the 2023 Cheltenham Festival.

The meeting is racing’s shop window, decorated with bells and whistles for Christmas, but behind the facade, British racing faces a number of problems. These include low levels of prize money, dwindling attendances, diminishing coverage in the daily papers and the threat of affordability checks for punters – and while none of them pose an existential threat, it comes down to the animal and one superstar racehorse can go a long way to putting a smile back on the sport’s face.

Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old may even knock Lion Courage (1935), Sir Ken (1954) and Istabraq (1999) off their perch as the shortest priced winners of the race at 4-9.

Of all the meeting’s major championships the Champion Hurdle is the best for favourites – 40 from 92 runnings and it is hard to see that 43 per cent strike rate being lowered despite his relative inexperience, with five unbeaten starts over hurdles. Nothing, so far, has got within 12 lengths of him. Last year his time in winning the Supreme, his novice race, was nearly six seconds quicker than Honeysuckle’s win in the Champion Hurdle, the equivalent of 23 lengths. He would have nearly been back in the unsaddling enclosure by the time the great mare crossed the line.

And while you can make of form and times what you want to, it is what Henderson, a man whose experience of great horses is matched by none, sees on the gallops on a daily basis that sets this horse on his own.

The caveat is, of course, that it is a horse race with eight flights of hurdles to negotiate when even the best can misjudge a top bar by half an inch, the unlucky can get brought down and horses have off days just as humans do.

But while 1-3 does not look a good betting proposition, you would struggle to find shares in the London Stock Market which would give you a 33 per cent return in under four minutes.

Thus far Constitution Hill has all been about potential, what he can be, and this is unquestionably his toughest examination yet. He has won on “Sandown heavy” so “Cheltenham soft” should hold no fears and it will take something extraordinary to inflict a first defeat on him, but let us save the plaudits for afterwards when we can put it into context.

The two best mares, Honeysuckle and Epatante, both previous winners of the race, have sought easier pickings in the mares’ hurdle, leaving State Man, also unbeaten in two seasons except for a maiden hurdle fall, as his main rival, along with Vauban and I Like To Move It. But beating Constitution Hill? It is going to be like trying to catch quicksilver.

The first Irish-trained winner at Cheltenham was Be Careful in the 1920 Foxhunters, four years before the first Gold Cup, seven before the first Champion Hurdle and it was not trained by Willie Mullins. But 103 years later Irish domination is all but complete and the extent of that will, surely, be a major talking point again when the meeting concludes on Friday night.

High Definition can get the visitors off the mark in the opening Sky Bet Supreme. It is a good few years since a Group One-class Flat horse rated as high 119 at his best has gone hurdling and if High Definition can get his jumping together – he unseated after a mile at Leopardstown – he can upset the Facile Vega fan club.

The Arkle encapsulates the Britain v Ireland dynamic with Jonbon up against El Fabiolo, but beware of races with more than two runners billed as matches. They will not be hanging around in this race. The front-running Dysart Dynamo is likely to have his throat cut by Effernock Fizz but the Mullins second string Saint Roi, a County Hurdle winner who went on to finish third in last year’s Champion Hurdle, appeals at good odds.

Win, lose or draw it appears we will say goodbye to Honeysuckle, the two-time Champion Hurdler, in the Close Brothers Mares Hurdle and if she can recover her form she will be an emotional winner for Henry de Bromhead but Henderson is mobbed-handed in this race and I like his Theatre Glory.

Back in the summer the Jockey Club finally kicked an extra day at the Cheltenham Festival into touch but the fifth day of this particular Festival will be when the Whip Review Panel sits next Tuesday to go through the list of infringements of the British Horseracing Authority’s new tighter whip rules.

The jockeys need to understand that rules is rules and that bleating is for lambs. So, let’s get on with one of the greatest shows in sport.

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