The Master of Closutton is currently Willie Mullins, the Master of Ditcheat is currently Paul Nicholls, but The Master of Cheltenham is Nicky Henderson.
Sitting on 58 Festival winners, Henderson leads the aforementioned training greats by four and 17, respectively. While the might of Mullins has steadily been eroding into Henderson’s lead in recent years, and Nicholls has age on in side in comparison, the 68-year-old’s position to the fore in the table is impressive. In short, Nicky Henderson is the greatest Cheltenham Festival trainer in history. Currently.
Now, the historic switching of the previously three-day meeting to a four-day meet back in 2005 has obviously helped the likes of Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls head past great training names like Fulke Walwyn, Martin Pipe and Fred Winter, Henderson decently saying, “To be fair, it’s a different ballgame to what it used to be. The likes of Fulke Walwyn only had three days."
The lead up to Henderson’s words were catalysed by a rather stupid question on my part - the occasion of interviewing a Cheltenham great clearly getting to me as I blurted out, “What does that record mean to you?"
In my defence, I find the minds of sports personalities fascinating – I want to know how they think, just how driven they are and what they do to keep getting better, essentially, how competitive they are. It sometimes appears that the general public, with the hollering and shouting they do when they go racing, forget just how much it all means to owners, trainers and jockeys – there are livelihoods and qualities of life on the line as well as bright lights and fame that sometimes go with it, especially at meetings like Cheltenham in March.
To my question, Henderson quipped, after a slight pause, “Well, we don’t want to give it back!”. He followed this with a chuckle, but while laughing, you sense it means a lot to him. Indeed, just two years ago he said as such in an interview with The Guardian.
Back in 2011, with the same publication, he also said, “It's my job to dethrone Kauto Star” before the Gold Cup. He did just that with Long Run.
When in 2016 Willie Mullins was making significant inroads into Henderson’s record he uttered “Oh yeah, the hunger’s still there. I’m good for a few more years. I won’t give up; whatever Willie does this week. I’m like Barry Hills, my good friend and fellow trainer up the road. He retired at 70-something for a month. For the first week he said: ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ But after three weeks he said: ‘It’s the worst decision I’ve ever made. Don’t do it.’ I won’t. I’ll be back next year – and a few more after that as well.”
So, while we see Henderson shuffle around racecourses well-dressed under a smart trilby approaching 70, there still appears to be plenty bite behind his bark, and why wouldn’t there be, when saddling the likes of Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite.
DOES MORE HISTORY BECKON?
The Henderson name is synonymous with Cheltenham history, Nicky’s is probably more widely known, but his father, Major John Ronald Henderson was the main driving force behind saving Prestbury Park from developers back in 1963.
In those days, racecourses didn’t have the revenue they generate from broadcasting deals like they do today and several courses, Cheltenham included, were seemingly close to extinction. Henderson senior successfully set about getting a group of investors together, and they bought Cheltenham for £240,000. The course was saved and we remember it each year with a dedicated race, the finale of every Festival, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase.
While I’m sure Nicky would love to win his father’s race again, bigger history lay in him becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup in one season. Has the immensity of potentially creating more Cheltenham history in March dawned on him yet? “No, not really” came the reply, “except, I keep getting reminded about it by an awful lot of people!”.
Pouring cold water on the topic, but giving a wonderful history lesson at the same time, Henderson continued, “If you go back to 1973 when I was (assistant trainer) with Fred Winter, that year we had Lanzarote (Champion Hurdle), Crisp (Champion Chase) and Pendil (Gold Cup) all favourites for their races, and that was probably before your time, but you can guess what happened?”
“All beaten”, I speculated. “They all got beat, yeah. Comedy Of Errors beat Lanzarote, Inkslinger beat Crisp and The Dikler beat Pendil on the line”, as he finished with a lower tone.
Henderson’s spirits should be positive this year however, after all, two of his big three chances are odds-on – those being Buveur D’Air and Altior. The former is best-priced at 8/15, or has a 65% chance of success while the latter is a best priced 8/11 (58%).
"They were all done and have come of out their work fine” when quizzed about the big three’s final preparations on Tuesday. Having been successful in his trio of races this season and winning all starts on the bridle, I assumed Henderson would be happy with Buveur D’Air’s preparation.
“He’s had a straight forward prep, from the angle he’s won all three, but he’s had some very uncompetitive races, and that’s the only thing that worries me a little bit. I’ve always said he needs a huge amount of work, and that’s why we took him to Kempton to work, and we worked him again on Monday. You’ve got to keep on top of him because he’s quite a stuffy horse."
Having listened and watched Henderson talk about Altior over the last week, I had got the distinct impression that he felt more was to come from the special-looking son of High Chaparral, but maybe I read it wrong or maybe the trainer is playing down the potential improvement to come.
“It’s hard to tell (how much he could improve), he was fit enough. I was frightened he hadn’t actually done that much work going to Newbury, but the good thing was, his weight wasn’t bad at all. On those lines, he wasn’t vastly unfit – he was probably pretty straight.”
In terms of his preparation, everything appears to have gone according to plan: “He’s schooled well, he’s worked well – it’s all been positive, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’s improved 10lb because he was always very good at what he did, and he still is."
Having named Might Bite himself, I was interested in the origins of Henderson’s thought process in doing so. Henderson’s three-time Champion Hurdle hero from the 80s, See You Then, was reportedly known for his biting, characteristics the trainer confirmed saying, “He was savage, yeah. In any stable, he was a really, really tough horse (to deal with). He would have you.”
“But that’s where the similarities begin and end (with Might Bite). This horse (Might Bite) wouldn’t dream of it, he’s only called Might Bite because of the way he’s bred.”
Moving on from the son of Scorpion’s name, we delved deeper into the mind of the Gold Cup favourite, a mind that many fans and punters feel is frail, having witnessed his truly remarkable and wayward success in last year’s RSA. Asked whether he felt his charge got a bit of bad press, he rebuked that that trail of thought.
“I don’t think it’s bad press, I think everyone is just aware of what he did (in last year’s RSA), and yes, it was pretty dramatic. There’s always a risk with him, and yeah, he’s got a bit of character in him because he’s by Scorpion, and you just have to be careful with them. Some people don’t like them (progeny of Scorpion), but I love them, you’ve just got to treat them gently. There’s nothing wrong with his head, but you wouldn’t want to play with it."
In the writer’s opinion, some of Might Bite’s ‘antics’ are normal for a herd animal but obviously undesirable, in some ways, for a racehorse. Henderson’s views on the Cheltenham course layout also suggest what he did in last year’s RSA, and another time over hurdles, are normal.
“If you watch any race at Cheltenham, you will see on the very odd occasion a horse wanting to go out into the country again, wanting another go, but nine out of 10 go right because that is where they came out of. OK, the way he did it (in last year’s RSA) was violent, but it’s just him knowing where they came from. It happens at other tracks too, like Ascot – it’s actually natural”.
Wrapping up on Might Bite, 4/1 (20%) favourite for the Gold Cup, I asked Henderson about comments he made at a preview night, suggesting headgear could be declared in the Gold Cup. “No! That’s all jest! We were only laughing, saying what would the BHA say if I declared just one cheekpiece. It would certainly flummox the rulebook, it would bring the BHA to a standstill, because they wouldn’t know what to say”, he laughed.
However, he did finish up in saying, “We do have a few little ideas”. It didn’t sound like the Master of Seven Barrows was fretting about his Gold Cup hope, which is unusual for a man with a public nervous disposition when his horses run.
Henderson admitted getting ready for Cheltenham “is not a lot of fun, believe me. It’s not just the horses, it’s the people as well – you don’t want to leave anybody down. This time of year, we all get a bit jumpy, we are putting the horses under pressure – they’ve got to work, and they’ve got to work quite hard which means we are open to injuries and all sorts of things."
FESTIVAL HIGHS AND LOWS
Nicky Henderson’s disposition has always intrigued me. The pressure of training top horses is clearly a job that takes its toll on him. The glory days and then renaissance of Sprinter Sacre had many a TV shot panning to Henderson post-race after the great horse had won, the poor man clearly more relieved than excited about winning.
Surely this isn’t how it should be, but Henderson said of Sprinter Sacre, and dealing with the pressure, “yeah, he was tough, because he was so public. Those days tested us alright.” I then asked him to compare the pressure of See You Then going for his third Champion Hurdle and getting Sprinter Sacre back into the Cheltenham Festival winner's enclosure.
“See You Then was another sleepless night merchant, because he had very, very fragile front legs, but we got there is the end. Sprinter was probably on another level, however.” Henderson and the Seven Barrows team got there in the end with Sprinter Sacre too, getting “The Black Aeroplane” back to a level which saw him brilliantly reclaim his Champion Chase crown from Un De Sceaux and Special Tiara back in 2016, three years on from his first success in the race.
Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase win was “without any doubt” the jewel in Henderson’s 58-winning Festival crown, “that was a remarkable day” he continued, but for balance I asked him for days he wanted to quickly forget in March. “There’s been plenty of those, but I go back to a lovely little horse called Childown who was favourite for the Triumph Hurdle (1984)."
“He got killed at the hurdle in front of the stands with a circuit to go. I also had a horse called See You Then in that race, but I’d only had him five or six weeks and I didn’t really consider him mine at the time. He (See You Then) jumped the last in front while I was down with Childown and we thought See You Then had won. Then they called out the numbers and he hadn’t won, but I couldn’t have cared less. We loved Childown. The bad days are always the ones where horses don’t come home."
Hopefully Nicky Henderson and his staff won’t have to deal with any horses not coming home at this year’s Festival. Instead, it would be great to see some of racing’s brightest stars in Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite welcomed back into Cheltenham’s iconic winner’s enclosure and perhaps complete more history for the Seven Barrows maestro.
The trio won’t have it all their own way however, despite what their prices suggest, especially in a game that can tame giants.