Constitution Hill and Nico De Boinville win the Unibet Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown for trainer Nicky Henderson and owner Michael Buckley. 8/1/2022 Pic Steve Davies/

Monday Musings: Hill has the Constitution for Cheltenham

In these quality-starved weeks after the Christmas and New Year holiday periods, we seek largely in vain for a few strands of straw from which to build a brick or two of worthwhile form, writes Tony Stafford. The obsession with identifying UK horses capable of winning at Cheltenham 2022 is beginning to look a bit like Nicky Henderson – stricken at the weekend at home in Lambourn with Covid – alone against the world.

Actually the bricks-from-straw metaphor more accurately refers to my flimsy resources in putting together enough thoughts to make a 1200-1600-word weekly article at this time of year. Always the first glimmer of optimism is provided by the <clichés will say "rapidly-"> but for the sake of accuracy it’s "steadily-"increasing daylight.

I popped out on Sunday at 4.15 p.m. to the local shop and it was still light but already dark when I got home. Nine weeks to Cheltenham means 90 minutes more at either end of the day. Soon after, the clocks go forward and so do we. But that’s not saying much about racing.

The Henderson horse charged with defending his trainer’s and nation’s honour has instantly switched from the superb Shishkin, who some believe could find the brick wall of Willie Mullins’ former UK-raced pointer Energumene ending his Queen Mother Champion Chase hopes.

No, a new star emerged over the weekend in the shape of Constitution Hill, named after the road that flanks the big garden wall alongside Buckingham Palace on one side and Green Park in London’s West End on the other.

Constitution Hill, ridden by Nico De Boinville in the colours of Michael Buckley, put in an extraordinary performance in the mud at Sandown Park on Saturday, running right away from a quintet of nice novices, going two to their one as the old commentators used to put it.

Rarely do you witness horses coming up an incline in muddy conditions seemingly giving no mind to the arduous nature of the task. He could have been running up to the winning post on good ground at Royal Ascot so little did he look like a jumper somewhere near the end of his tether, as most animals have been this past couple of weeks.

Constitution Hill was the sixth Henderson winner of the Tolworth Hurdle, now sponsored by Unibet but a race of several guises and a few venues with seasonal abandonments, meaning Ascot, Warwick and Kempton have all played temporary host to this much-coveted novice prize.

A glance back at its history since inauguration in 1976 reveals the inevitable Desert Orchid in 1984, so he’s on that roll of honour as well as the Clarence House (initially Victor Chandler Chase) as was chronicled last week.

Henderson’s first of six, New York Rainbow in 1992, was also owned by Buckley, but I recall his owning smart horses even earlier than that. For almost three years between 1969 and late 1971 I was on the Press Association racing desk and just before I left, John De Moraville, son of the former trainer of the same name who handled the wonderful stayer and later breed-defining jumps stallion Vulgan, joined the team. John later became Bendex at the Daily Express, following the colourful Charles Benson in the role. He was still later a Jockey Club/BHA jumps handicapper.

John was half-brother to Peter Bailey, a successful jumping trainer at the time who had a youthful Michael Buckley among his owners. In those days his colours were white and black, halved I think, almost in the Oppenheimer manner and with sleeves reversed – one white, one black.

His best chaser at the time was Strombolus and while I could not find that horse’s career on wikipedia, I did find him participating in a race on the internet. I keyed in his name and was directed to the film of the 1979 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park, which was won by Tommy Carmody on Silver Buck.

As Peter O’Sullevan informed the gathered crowd, which included yours truly, victory would be the jockey’s second in a row as he had also ridden Gay Spartan to success 12 months earlier.

Tommy, who joined from Ireland as stable jockey to Tony Dickinson, would win it again on Silver Buck a year later for the hat-trick by which time Michael had taken over the licence from his father. It was during that time that Dickinson junior told me: “I’ve had that little sod William Haggas ringing me up from Harrow School again telling me how to train his mother’s horse!” Christine Feather owned Silver Buck.

The Harewood team was to make it five-in-a-row in the race when, after the 1981 renewal was lost to the weather, Wayward Lad collected the next two. Both horses featured in the Famous Five Gold Cup of 1983 but Carmody left after completing his hat-trick. He was supplanted principally by Robert Earnshaw – still working for the BHA as a stipe the last I saw – Graham <sorry mate, you can’t have a trainer’s licence> Bradley, Kevin Whyte, Dermot Browne (ahem!) but plenty more.

I used to talk to Michael most days then and when I heard Carmody, already a prominent rider in Ireland, was joining the team I decided to back him for the jump jockeys’ title and suggested to Robert Glendinning, the Daily Telegraph Racing Editor, he should back him too.

Bob duly agreed to take a tenner of my bet. A few months later, Bob was about to retire and on the Friday evening before Grand National Day as he was finishing that night he handed over the ten quid with a grunt – “worst bet I ever had!” in his best West Yorkshire tones.

It was one of my many impecunious days, so, aware there was one race still to run at Aintree, I dived down to Corals in Fleet Street and had a fiver each way on a Peter Easterby horse ridden by Alan Brown and it won at 15/2.

Also at that time I had a regular weekend slot on BBC Radio London with Wembley ice hockey announcer Norman De Mesquita – on his weeks off, substitute Simon (brother of outrageous actor Oliver) Reed, who still commentates on ice skating. I’d go off on my Friday lunch break to Marylebone High Street where Derek Thompson’s first wife (of three) Jenny was a producer.

My interview went out in a sports programme at tea-time majoring on the big meeting of the following day with a repeat on the Saturday morning show which ended at 11.30. When we did the interview I was very strong on the Gordon Richards-trained Tamalin, but by the time I got back with my winnings, he had been declared a non-runner.

A quick look through put me on to Rubstic, so I parlayed the winnings into 25 each way on him at 33’s,  then called Norman to offer to come in the following day and do the slot live. The complication was that I lived in Hertfordshire and needed to bring the family to my mother-in-law in Highbury. We left in plenty of time, but had to stop three or four times as the kids were all feeling car-sick. Listening to the show as I neared the studio, I heard Norman saying I was about to arrive. It was a tense few minutes but I made it to the studio at 11.22; duly tipped the winner and on Monday popped in to Corals again to collect. Six months later I was Racing Editor!

That 1979 King George had another link to the Tolworth Hurdle as the horse that won the first running, Grand Canyon, was in the line-up. A New Zealand-bred horse, he was trained in Sussex by Derek Kent and ridden by long-time Jockey Club/BHA starter Peter Haynes. Grand Canyon shared a good pace with Tied Cottage, later that season the disqualified winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, ruled out after his feed was found to be contaminated. Grand Canyon fell and Tied Cottage faded into fourth in the King George in question.

And a further link to this weekend was that Tied Cottage’s trainer was Dan Moore, who a decade earlier had been the highly assured handler of L’Escargot, my favourite jumper of all time and the most underrated, too, in my opinion. Dan and his wife Joan, parents of long-standing trainer Arthur, are commemorated every year in the big novice race on yesterday’s Fairyhouse card.

Silver Buck, later the 1982 Gold Cup hero, had to be ridden right out at Kempton to hold off Jack Of Trumps, one of the earliest high-class horses owned by a very youthful J P McManus. Third was another smart performer in Border Incident, trained by Richard (Lord) Head.

Strombolus was up there in the first four for a long way but gradually weakened; he subsequently won plenty of good long-distance handicaps. Buckley has done really well for almost half a century, but one of his lesser-known associations was with the 2008 Triumph Hurdle winner, Zaynar.

During the Victor Chandler Chase times, Nicky often tried to get the bookmaker into owning horses but ownership didn’t really interest him - unless he could have a major successful punt. Zaynar, who was an Aga Khan horse with a good jumping pedigree but a non-winner in three flat races in France, was offered to several people including Ray Tooth, who had Punjabi running in that year’s Champion Hurdle – he finished third. Eventually a mutual friend encouraged Chandler to buy the horse with him, initially 50/50.

Each half was later sub-divided in portions of varying size with an ownership name of Men In Our Position, an appropriate one to encompass any situation. Zaynar was unbeaten in his novice year winning the Triumph and his next two the following season before losing at 1/14 at Kelso after which he never reached the heights anticipated.

The entertaining Victor Chandler biography by the multi award-winning author Jamie Reid – Put Your Life On It – recalls that Triumph Hurdle. But the friend I mentioned remembers it for a different reason. He says with some irritation that while Michael Buckley had the smallest share, he left Prestbury Park that night with the magnificent trophy in his possession.

Buckley has had many great horses, and when for several years he reduced his involvement with jumpers and therefore Henderson, he built a significant flat-race team with Jamie Osborne. They had tremendous success together and it was by only a matter of inches that he was denied what would have been his biggest win of all.

In 2014 the three-year-old Toast Of New York, a £60k yearling buy, finished a neck runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on the back of success in that year’s UAE Derby, and arguably should have been awarded the race in the stewards' room. He cashed in, selling the horse to Qatari interests.

Michael Buckley can look back with satisfaction at his life of involvement with top-class horses and big-race success. Who’s to say that the best of all is not still to come with Constitution Hill, starting at Cheltenham in two months?

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