Nicky Henderson will be in agony. He’s been training for 45 years, been Champion six times and saddled 73 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, but he won’t have had many more important days than this one — and how he will feel it.
The landscape has changed for Henderson since he took possession of the rare jewel that is Constitution Hill.
He’s trained plenty of horses in recent years that have enjoyed enormous public followings but the feeling around the current Champion Hurdler is different.
A huge crowd will be at Sandown on Saturday — provided it passes an inspection — to see a fantastic card but many will be going just to set eyes on Constitution Hill in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. That’s exactly how it would have been at Newcastle last weekend, when the race was originally scheduled to be staged.
Henderson wants to please people and wants to run in this Grade One contest but, equally, he’ll be terrified over every drop of rain that falls. He won’t want Constitution Hill’s first outing of the season to be attritional but, in potentially not running, he knows how disappointed the masses would be.
Nicky Henderson will feel the pressure of deciding whether Constitution Hill should run on Saturday at Sandown
The horse is one of the best around at the minute but there are concerns over the state of the ground at the track
Therein lies the agony. It strikes a chord about how things were when the late Sir Henry Cecil was training Frankel. During that colt’s glorious career, Cecil was being treated for cancer. Some people thought having Frankel was keeping Cecil alive; others thought the pressure was too much.
Constitution Hill has something of Frankel about him. He wins his races in the most spectacular style, he’s been the subject of fierce debates about which prizes he should pursue and he has the capability to take racing on to the back pages and beyond. Of course, these times will be precious for Henderson and the staff in his yard, along with Constitution Hill’s owner Michael Buckley, but the days aren’t always full of milk and honey. The pressure around every decision — and the scrutiny — are enormous.
In an interview I did for the 26th Sir Peter O’Sullevan Award last week, Nicky explained that See You Then — the fragile, triple Champion Hurdler of the mid-1980s — was the biggest challenge he’s had as a trainer but Constitution Hill has brought the most pressure. I dread to think how he is feeling.
He will be up, as usual, at 6am on Saturday, mulling over every possible outcome. Do we run Constitution Hill? Do we stay at home? What happens next if the card is off and all the other good horses who are due to travel from Seven Barrows have their engagements postponed?
The racing will begin, hopefully, at 11.35 with Willmount, who could become a leading contender for the Sky Bet Supreme — a race Henderson has won with stars such as Altior, Shishkin and Constitution Hill. Owner Olly Harris lives near Sandown and has put a lot into the game. He deserves a good horse. Shortly after that, it is the Pertemps Qualifier at 12.40 and Chantry House, who runs for long-time friend and supporter JP McManus. Once very good over fences, a hurdling campaign seems the order of the day and he was a big eye-catcher in third at Cheltenham last time. Watch him closely.
Then, all being well, it will be the Fighting Fifth (1.15) in which Henderson wants to run Shishkin, who refused to race at Ascot two weeks ago and needs a run before going to the King George on Boxing Day. If he was a footballer, you’d say he was Carlos Tevez — brilliant but prone to going AWOL.
There will be an inspection on Saturday but Henderson must also decide if he wants to run
He could have a contender for the Grand National and can be trusted to make the right call
Completing the day should be Jonbon, the red-hot favourite for the Tingle Creek (3.00), the pre-Christmas highlight in which it is a joy to watch two-mile chasers flying over Sandown’s famous Railway Fences. If Jonbon dominates from the front he will be wonderful to behold.
Henderson has achieved so much but the most revealing line in my interview with him came when he admitted the one scratch he has left to itch is winning the Grand National.
His dad, Johnny, helped save the great race in the 1970s when Aintree looked set for closure.
Nicky went close with The Tsarevich in 1987 but has barely had a sniff since. This year he could have a leading contender in City Chief, who shapes like an ideal Aintree horse. The perfect horse, however, is Constitution Hill. Whatever decisions need to be made, trust Henderson to make the right calls.