Nicky Henderson is looking forward to putting a frustrating period behind him by belatedly taking the wraps off Constitution Hill and Shishkin at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The superstar duo have not been seen in competitive action so far this season and, not for the first time, the Seven Barrows handler has drawn criticism from some quarters for his cautious approach.
There have, though, been extenuating circumstances on both counts, with Constitution Hill’s intended defence of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle scuppered by the weather, and Shishkin even getting to the start of Ascot’s 1965 Chase, only to dig his heels in and refuse to jump off with the other runners.
Henderson subsequently entered and declared his top-class pair for a rescheduled Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Sandown – and while the decision to withdraw both on account of testing conditions left many disappointed, the trainer insists with Constitution Hill in particular, it was a straightforward call.
“You couldn’t run at Sandown and Kempton. It was physically not possible,” Henderson said at a media morning at his yard on Tuesday.
“You knew straight away you were going to have to sacrifice one race for the other and we decided we would stick to the original plan.
“I wasn’t going to put him in at Sandown until the very last minute. I had already said to Michael (Buckley, owner) ‘I don’t think this will work’, but he said ‘let’s see’.
“You could not have possibly run in both races and that is what some people fail to understand. That is the only thing I find frustrating.
“Of course, it is frustrating when you drag him all the way to Newcastle and back again. That was bad luck. That was the original plan and that is where he would have been, and we would have been on the same leg as last year – unfortunately, we are not.”
While Constitution Hill’s preparation for a bid to claim back-to-back Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle wins has not gone entirely to plan, Henderson is confident the lack of a recent run will not be a hindrance.
He is, though, keen to see how the six-year-old performs before considering plans beyond Christmas.
Henderson added: “He was ready for Newcastle, and he is ready for Kempton.
“We have got to get out there and he has got to go through the motions. He has got to be as good as he ever was at Kempton, then we can look forward.
“He could go to Kempton, then Cheltenham for the International Hurdle, which they have stuck in on Trials Day, then Cheltenham (for the Champion Hurdle) and then Aintree.
“He won’t go to Ireland then (for the Dublin Racing Festival), definitely not, but I won’t look forward until Kempton is over.”
While much is made of Constitution Hill’s apparently bombproof temperament, the same cannot be said at this stage of his stablemate Shishkin following his much publicised refusal in Berkshire last month.
Henderson, however, insists that while the nine-year-old has his quirks, his behaviour tends to improve as the season progresses.
He said: “Constitution Hill is the A, B, C of training horses and you point him in the right direction. He is very straightforward, as he has got a very good temperament.
“Shishkin is very straightforward, but the early part of the season with him is probably the most difficult. That was a bit to do with what happened at Ascot.
“When he is fresh, he is a bit of a plonker! I sent him to Zara Tindall to go and do some work with her. It was good condition and dressage work to get some manners on him and get the basics done. I think he really enjoyed it.
“He doesn’t enjoy that bit here early on and I don’t know why. He can be stroppy. Once he has had a run, he is completely the opposite. He is putty in our hands.”
As a six-time Grade One and dual Cheltenham Festival winner, Shishkin’s raw ability is not in question, but Henderson feels he faces an almighty task to win the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase on what will ultimately be his first start since impressing at Aintree in the spring.
“I’ve been saying all along I don’t see how you can win a King George without a race and the answer is you can’t. On the other hand, we have got nowhere else to go, as there isn’t another race until the Cotswold Chase,” Henderson went on.
“If I ran him at Sandown in the Fighting Fifth, I would have bottomed him and he wouldn’t go to the King George, so therefore I had to take him home and run him straight in.
“He has been going, for him, really well, and his schooling the other morning was fantastic. I’m not going to sit here and tell you he can win a King George, but I do think he can run very well.
“The trouble with Kempton is that some people think it is an easy three miles because it is flat and fast and there are no hills, but there isn’t a place where they can take a blow or have a breather. You jump, jump, jump, then go flat out around a bend, then go jump, jump, jump. It is all go, go, go.
“We have got to have a go, as we have no other option. We have got to Christmas and he hasn’t had a run, but that is not his fault and I don’t think it is mine either, as we have been trying.”
On his plans to try to avoid a repeat of his Ascot antics, the trainer added: “George (Daly) will go down to the start with him, as he knows him really well.
“We can’t do anything. Charlie Brooks mentioned a hunting horn, but Barney (Clifford, clerk of the course) won’t let me get up a tree and blow it!”
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