In all my years attending the Cheltenham Festival, I have never seen anything quite like that, writes Brough Scott
History is now his for the taking. Constitution Hill did not just beat Ireland’s champion State Man, he toyed with him. Heaven help me I recall every Champion Hurdle since 1953, and have been at Cheltenham for every one since 1963, but I have never seen anything like this.
Unbeaten and unextended in all six of his races over hurdles, Constitution Hill now heads into a future where forbidden phrases such as “the greatest ever” beckon up ahead. But he has to get there. What he has done so far is flawless, yesterday, bar one “hold your breath” moment at the final hurdle, was one of those extraordinary events where the very best of wishes are delivered.
Constitution Hill is not a flashy horse. As his groom, Jaydon Lee, leads him out of the stable block towards the buzzing stands over the rise, the dark bay coat shines with health but the stride is steady, the eyes next to the white-starred forehead as calm as though he was walking across the forecourt of Nicky Henderson’s stable at Lambourn.
“He’s never any bother,” says Lee, a tall smiling, smart-suited 21-year-old from Leamington Spa whose other horse at Henderson’s is the star chaser, Shishkin. “He doesn’t worry, so I don’t either.” These are delicious moments in any sport. The walk behind or beneath the arena with the knowledge of the huge stage where your destiny awaits. We pass daffodils and first blossoms, dip through a tunnel and then down into the saddling paddock to join six rivals already stalking the circuit.
Michael Buckley, the owner, has a grey scarf above his suit and a frown of tension on his face. He has seen triumphs and disaster for five full decades and knows just what this day could bring. Henderson arrives with the saddle, and owner and trainer have a quiet embrace. Words are not needed now.
Save for the splendidly named Jason The Militant, Constitution Hill’s six rivals have decent scores on their shields. Not So Sleepy is getting on a bit but he was once a tearaway winner on both the Flat and the jumps. Shiny-coated I Like To Move It has won three times on the Prestbury Park track. Zanahiyr passed the post third in this race last year. Vauban looked a monster when he won last year’s Triumph Hurdle and his chestnut stable companion State Man paces round lean and ready as befits a Willie Mullins contender. No one wants to allow Constitution Hill an exhibition round.
Nico De Boinville, the jockey, is well aware of this. Legged up in the saddle, he has his game face on beneath the goggles. He leads the field off from the parade and on the canter down to the start. The horse they call “Conrad” may be dozy at home but power now oozes from the end of the rein.
The start is a full half a mile away up the now sunlit turf. Cleeve Hill looks down from the cloud-spangled blue sky as it has on Champion Hurdles for nearly a century now. Down at the last hurdle we wait seven hard-trained thoroughbreds drilling down towards us and dare the glory to come in. I Like To Move It leads with Not So Sleepy behind him on the far side, Constitution Hill close behind. The favourite skips over the hurdle and with the gallop slowing actually heads the leader after the field has swept up round the bend and jumped the next. The field is still bunched as they get to the top of the hill, the pace as slow as 15 seconds to the furlong. Off down the slope and the roll is on, the fractions drop below 14, and the dross are trailing.
Constitution Hill wings ahead at the third last. State Man and Vauban are still a threat. After the second last it is only State Man, after the turn only a somersault could stop the favourite and then for a ghastly moment we nearly get it. Constitution Hill is on a wrong stride for the final hurdle. De Boinville sits still and, instead of shortening for another stride his partner leaps a full stride early. His forelegs reach forward as we wince at the drama. At this stretch horses can buckle on landing but there was only brilliance not buckling now.
“It’s just a matter of when you push the button,” De Boinville told the TV cameras with the rare delight of a man who has now completed the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Chase, Champion Hurdle treble. “He’s an exceptional horse an absolute superstar.”
He turns Constitution Hill away and walks down back in front of the stands with the waves of cheering crashing in. Lee joins him with a smile so deep that his face will hurt in the morning. The applause rings again as he walks into the unsaddling enclosure. Trainer and owner join them for the photos. Someone calls out for an uproarious “three cheers”.
Mission accomplished but what missions now. With this dominance a sequence of Champion Hurdles looks Constitution Hill’s for the taking. But Buckley and Henderson are dreamers too. This is a horse with spring heels in his jumping. Send him over fences next season and he could be better yet. That treble De Boinville has already achieved on different horses could be repeated on only one. If Constitution Hill is as superior over the bigger obstacles as he is over hurdles, he might even do two of those targets in the same year.
Those are all the happiest of headaches for next year. Now is the time for celebration. As De Boinville turned to take saddle and sweat-soaked number cloth to weigh in, he smiled at Buckley and said: “You can stop worrying now.” Ah, but what wonderful worries up ahead.