The Randox Grand National is one of the few big jumps races to have eluded Nicky Henderson during his illustrious career and as he looks forward to saddling Mister Coffey in Saturday’s showpiece, the Lambourn handler kicked off the 2023 Aintree meeting with a superb Grade 1 double courtesy of Shishkin and Constitution Hill.
Shishkin, owned by Joe and Marie Donnelly, got the ball rolling with victory in the Bowl on his first attempt over three miles. The front-running Ahoy Senor and Brian Hughes looked to have stolen a march on their rivals but a sloppy jump at the last fence opened the door and Nico de Boinville conjured a late rattle from Shishkin, who stayed on in fine style to overhaul Ahoy Senor and take the spoils by a length and a half.
“Shishkin had to be really gutsy today and battle it out,” de Boinville said afterwards. “I’m over the moon with him. The team at home have done a great job. I’m delighted.
“He didn’t have the speed [to challenge up the inner] so I thought I’d wait to see if I could pick him up in the straight. It’s a long way up the straight. He just seems to find that extra bit after jumping he last. He was keeping going whereas the others were probably stopping. I’m absolutely delighted for everybody.”
Michael Buckley’s Constitution Hill made it seven from seven under Rules – and his sixth Grade 1 – with an easy success in the Aintree Hurdle.
De Boinville quickly had the six-year-old at the head of affairs and that’s where he stayed, jumping with his usual zest and not being hard pressed to see off Sharjah by three lengths on his first run over two and a half miles.
“It’s nerve-racking to be honest – I probably shouldn’t say that, but it is,” Buckley said after the race. “I guess that’s my temperament rather that anything to do with the horse, who is spectacular.”
Henderson added: “It couldn’t be more straightforward really. Two and a half miles out there on your own – he was just doodling along in his own time. He was in second gear the whole way. His versatility is incredible – you can do anything with him.
“We said this morning he was going to have to make it. Just don’t mess about and keep it simple.”
Asked whether Constitution Hill would stay over hurdles or embark on a chasing career, neither the owner nor trainer would immediately be drawn, thought Henderson outlined a possible hurdles schedule for next season.
Earlier on the card, Banbridge and JJ Slevin carried the Ronnie Bartlett silks to victory in the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase (2m4f) for trainer Joseph O’Brien, while Triumph Hurdle third Zenta, trained by Willie Mullins for JP McManus, just got the better of Bo Zenith in a terrific finish to the Grade 1 Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle (2m1f) under Mark Walsh.