Talking Horses: Is Constitution Hill too successful for the good of racing? | Constitution Hill – Freedom Voice


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 is a similar price for the rescheduled race at Sandown Park on Saturday. The card’s feature race, meanwhile, is another Grade One event, the Tingle Creek Chase. That too has a long odds-on favourite in Jonbon, a winner on 11 of his 13 starts.

This does 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, amid an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, 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 number-crunching to back it up. “Back when I was a finance director (for Jockey Club Racecourses),” Drabwell said, “I did a large piece of what we call multi-linear regression analysis, to actually work out what really impacts people to purchase.

“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.

“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.”

Constitution Hill en route to winning the Aintree Hurdle in April 2023
Constitution Hill was 1-5 for the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last Saturday, before the weather forced a change of schedule. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Newcastle’s loss should very much be Sandown’s gain on Saturday if the meeting passes a 7.30am inspection, called due to the threat of heavy overnight rain, as both Constitution Hill and Shishkin, who refused to race at Ascot two weeks ago, are in the six-runner field for the Fighting Fifth.

The feature race, meanwhile, is named after one of the track’s most popular stars of the past, with crowd-pullers like 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.

“We’ve used prime advertising space on the electronic poster boards to say “Jonbon running here on Saturday,” Drabwell says. “Not a lot of people who drive past will know who Jonbon is, but they could think, ‘who is Jonbon?’, or ‘who is Constitution Hill?’, and go home and Google him and find that there is so much more than just six horses running around a track.”

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A significant difference between a horse like 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, quite possibly for good, and his next few seasons could well look very 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.

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