Talking Horses: Constitution Hill and Shishkin withdrawn after heavy rain

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Nicky Henderson has withdrawn Constitution Hill and Shishkin from the rearranged Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Sandown. While the meeting passed a 7.30am inspection, rain was still falling throughout the morning at the track on already heavy ground on the hurdles track and conditions are being monitored.

Champion Hurdle winner Constitution Hill was supposed to make his seasonal reappearance at Newcastle last weekend but the meeting was abandoned with the Fighting Fifth moved to Sandown. Shishkin was an intended runner at Newcastle also, in the Rehearsal Chase, but in an attempt to get a prep run into him before the King George, Henderson had declared him alongside his stablemate.

However, neither will run at Sandown, nor will promising novice hurdler Willmount in an earlier race but Jonbon is still an intended starter in the Tingle Creek.

Henderson said on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Due to the extremely testing going, we have decided that Constitution Hill will not run in today’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Sandown because it would simply not be fair to race him under such extreme conditions on his first run of the season. It is too close to Boxing Day, and he can’t do both, so, all being well, he’ll go straight to Kempton for the Christmas Hurdle.

“Shishkin has also been withdrawn, along with Willmount from his intended engagement in the Listed Novices’ Hurdle.” As for Jonbon he added: “He has had a run so is fit and well, and the ground is much more suitable on the chase course. It is very unfortunate, and we are all sorry they won’t be turning up, but we have to put the horses first – it’s as simple as that.” PA Media

Is Constitution Hill too successful for the good of racing?

Can a racehorse ever be too good? If it runs in your colours, then the answer, clearly, is no. “It is a privilege to be given a horse like this,” Michael Buckley, the owner of Constitution Hill, said recently. “You can buy lots of horses, but it’s a gift if you get something that is so exceptional, and it’s a joy and a thrill and the worrying bits [when he runs] are just part of life. I’d rather have the worries than not have the horse, anyway.”

From the point of view of the racecourses that stage the show, however, it could conceivably be a different story. Constitution Hill was the 1-5 favourite for the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last weekend before the meeting was abandoned, and had been a similar price for the rescheduled race at Sandown on Saturday.

This did not, on the face of it, promise too much uncertainty or heart-in-mouth excitement for the pre-Christmas crowd. With many tracks still struggling to get attendances back to pre-Covid levels, might it help to have a little less quality and a bit more competition?

Sarah Drabwell, Sandown’s general manager, is in little doubt that the answer is no, and she has the numbers to back it up. “When I was a finance director [for Jockey Club Racecourses], I did a large piece of what we call multi-linear regression analysis, to actually work out what really impacts people to purchase,” Drabwell said.

“We wanted to find out if customers are price-sensitive, and what we found for Sandown is that the first 1,500 are not. They’re racing fans and will book because they love it and will come to whatever you put on.

Sandown Park 
11.35 Willmount 12.05 Pretending 12.40 Operation Manna 1.15 Constitution Hill 1.50 Jpr One 2.25 Spirit D’Aunou 3.00 Jonbon 3.35 Fontaine Collonges

11.10 Norman Fletcher 11.45 Golden Son 12.20 Harper Valley 12.55 Pink Legend 1.30 Heltenham 2.05 Now Where Or When (nb) 2.40 Le Fauve 3.15 Benson (nap)

11.55 Whydah Gally 12.27 The Newest One 1.02 High Game Royal 1.37 Dalamoi 2.12 Take Your Time 2.47 The Jukebox Man 3.20 Range 3.50 Walk In The Hills

3.30 Zozimus 4.05 Petra Celera 4.40 Champagne Prince 5.15 Smart Vision 5.45 Elderflower 6.15 Marshal Dan 6.45 Absolute Dream 7.15 Clipsham La Habana 7.45 Lezardrieux 

5.00 Spartan Warrior 5.30 Island Of Skye 6.00 Follow Your Heart 6.30 Lion’s House 7.00 Giorgio M 7.30 Vaguely Royal 8.00 Whatawit 8.30 Nolton Cross

“The next group, which could be anything from 500 to 10,000, are price sensitive, and are looking for a great day out. And after that, there’s another group, that only come when the stars come out, and they are price-insensitive as well.

“ We saw that, for instance, with AP McCoy’s last day [in 2015, with an 18,000 sell-out], and we also see it before Finals Day [in April], when the thing we get most calls about is which horses will be in the parade of champions. Is Constitution Hill coming? Is Shishkin coming? People will come to see Constitution Hill even if he’s just eating grass.”

The feature race, meanwhile, is named after one of the track’s most popular stars of the past, with crowd-pullers such as Desert Orchid, Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star and Sprinter Sacre on its roll of honour. And Sandown is so convinced that star names pull in the punters that it puts them up in lights for the thousands of bored drivers that crawl past the track every day in the interminable queue for the Scilly Isles roundabout.

A significant difference between a horse such as Desert Orchid and a modern champion like Constitution Hill is that the old-time chasers would often run every three or four weeks throughout the season, and frequently lined up in handicaps too.

Talk of sending Constitution Hill over fences has been shelved, possibly for good, and his next few seasons could well look much like the last, with just two outings before the Cheltenham Festival in March and perhaps one more in April.

With no sense of narrative, that a story is progressing towards a conclusion, could there come a point when it all starts to feel like Groundhog Day? Perhaps. But at the same time, Constitution Hill is an example of that vanishingly rare athlete in any sport whose brilliance is instantly apparent. He needs to be seen only once to appreciate that he is operating on an entirely different level to his opponents.

If that not only brings some extra fans through the gates, but also reminds at least some owners and racegoers who have drifted away what it was that fired their imagination in the first place, a slight lack of edge-of-the-seat excitement is surely a small price to pay.

Tipping preview

The Becher Chase over the Grand National fences at Aintree is the highlight from a betting perspective and Stuart Crawford’s Now Where Or When (2.05) could be the pick of the early prices at around 12-1.

The eight-year-old was a distant last of five in a Grade Two at Navan last time, but his usual cheekpieces were missing and Saturday’s £85,000 first prize is a much more realistic target.

Now Where Or When was within a length of the high-class Kemboy and Vanillier, the subsequent Grand National runner-up, in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse in February, and did not stay in the Irish Grand National two months later. He is back at a more suitable trip here and could be thrown in off a mark of 138 if he is anywhere close to his earlier form.

Aintree 12.55 Probably a match between seasonal debutants Zambella and Pink Legend, with the latter marginally preferred as to extend Venetia Williams’s strong start to the campaign.

Sandown 1.50 It was a stumble rather than a mistake which robbed Jpr One of an easy Grade Two victory at Cheltenham last month and he should make amends with at Grade One level here.

Sandown 2.25 Spirit D’Aunou was much too keen for his own good when returning to action against six rivals at Cheltenham in October, but he gets on well with 3lb-claimer Niall Houlihan and has scope for further improvement with the run under his belt.

Aintree 2.40 Dan Skelton’s team has hit peak form in the last 10 days and Le Fauve, a £130,000 purchase after finishing a close second at Bordeaux in September, could well be good enough to make a successful British debut.

Huntingdon: 11.55 Burrows Hall, 12.25 Royal Thunder, 12.55 Junkanoo, 1.25 Karaktere D’Enfer, 1.55 First Flow (nb), 2.25 Javert Allen, 2.55 Rula Bula, 3.25 Motion In Limine.

Kelso: 12.05 Valleyview Tommy, 12.35 Gentleman De Mai, 1.05 Inedit Star, 1.35 Tiger Orchid, 2.05 Dangan Cloud, 2.35 Baron Briggs, 3.05 Duyfken.

Wolverhampton: 1.20 Diamondsinthesand, 1.50 Frightening, 2.20 Nellie French, 2.50 Blue Hawaii, 3.20 Mr Trick, 3.50 Eagle Day (nap), 4.20 Aclaim To Fame, 4.50 Water Of Leith.

Sandown 3.00 Jonbon beat Edwardstone, last year’s winner of this race, with something to spare at Cheltenham last month and is unlikely to be troubled to confirm the form.

Aintree 3.15 William Maggs takes a handy 7lb off the back of Benson, who returns to hurdles after a fair chasing debut in October and is just 3lb above his winning mark in the Morebattle Hurdle in March.

Sandown 3.35 Venetia Williams won this with a seasonal debutant 12 months ago and Fontaine Collonges, successful first time up at Haydock last November, could repeat the trick under the useful 5lb claimer Ned Fox.