'In National Hunt racing, there isn't an alternative. For us, everything comes down to this'
Legend Henderson has many fond Festival memories - but is determined to look forward
Nicky Henderson is whirling around Seven Barrows, his slice of equine paradise on the North Wessex Downs, not so much in a bustle as a perpetual blur. There is a blue cushion in his kitchen, emblazoned with the words: "Just say no!" It is intended to help him mitigate his prodigious work ethic, but in the preamble to Cheltenham week he will not hear of it.
He checks on each horse religiously, takes each telephone call without fail. Such are the stresses peculiar to the Festival that consumes his every waking hour.
"Would you like a drink?" he asks, as the interview rolls into its second hour. "Tea, coffee, whisky, brandy? I probably need something." He settles for a glass of white wine.
At 66, Henderson is all that he is reputed to be: hale, generous, avuncular, with a reassuringly ruddy complexion. A raffish Old Etonian and the godson of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, for whom his father had been aide-de-camp during the Second World War, he worked first as a stockbroker and even, once, as a self-described "sex adviser" on a Jilly Cooper novel.
She chose him, apparently, because there was nobody who understood the racing world, in all its foibles and madcap obsessions, more intuitively. "It's an extraordinary way of life," he admits. "I love it. You have to, if you want to keep getting up at 6am in the middle of winter to stand on those Downs in the pouring rain."
Nothing, though, boils inside him like Cheltenham. As he puts it, he spends 361 days of his year essentially mobilising for the other four. And little wonder: Henderson has been saddling winners at Cheltenham since 1985, when he toasted his first triumph with The Tsarevich in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup, and acknowledges that there is nowhere else more hard-wired into his competitive psyche.
"The whole game has got top-heavy with Cheltenham," he says. "Whether in a good or a bad way, I'm not sure. But in National Hunt racing, there isn't an alternative. It's what everybody wants. If you take it to the Flat sure, Royal Ascot's pretty special, but there are a lot of other things you can do. For us everything comes down to this."
With 55 winners, Henderson is the most garlanded trainer in the festival's history - even if he believes that Willie Mullins will, in an extension of the England versus Ireland duel so central to the meeting's lifeblood, surpass it eventually. But his love affair with the place started simmering much earlier. It was his father, Johnny, who saved the racecourse from property developers, bringing together a consortium of investors to buy it for £240,000 in 1963. It was the idols of Cheltenham, too, not least Arkle and Mill House, who stirred his teenage imagination.
He even had their pictures plastered on the wall of his bedroom at Eton. "Sad, isn't it? Most 16-year-olds had cut-outs of girls from Playboy on their walls. I had Mill House." For all that Henderson Snr was steeped in the racing spirit, both as an owner and as the founder of the Racecourse Holdings Trust, his own transition to the trainer's craft happened essentially by accident.
Initially, he had followed his father into Cazenove & Co, the blue-blooded stockbroking firm, but soon discovered that the rigid rhythms of City life left him cold. The Army did not appeal much, either, even though his godfather - the redoubtable 'Monty', former Supreme Allied Commander, no less - would furnish him with voluminous books about how to be a good general. It fell to Fred Winter, celebrated both as jockey and trainer, to help prise him away, noticing how restless he was.
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"It was just a complete change of tack. I was destined to spend my life in the City, and it could have been fun," Henderson reflects. "Actually, it could have been great fun, because I would probably be long retired, with lots of dosh.
"Now I'm doing something that I shall have to keep doing until I drop dead in the paddock." The choice to forsake the stability of stockbroking for the uncertainties of trying to condition the most delicate of animals for success could, he accepts, have mystified some. "That was the crazy bit. There's absolutely b----- all security in this game. But they were probably pretty glad to see the back of me in London, really. I don't think I would have been of much use to them."
It was a decision that lacked rationality, but this was hardly a rational juncture in Henderson's life. His mother, Sarah Beckwith-Smith, had died in a hunting accident in 1972. "We were all in a dreadful muddle," he says, quietly. "It was a big turning point. Fred was very good to me, and the family. He rescued me, if you like."
Under Winter's tutelage, Henderson rapidly cut his teeth, receiving his training licence in 1978 and taking over from Roger Charlton at Windsor House Stables in Lambourn. He was not without talent as an amateur jockey, although he endured an ill-starred record at Cheltenham, falling twice. His daughter, Camilla, has since picked up the mantle, having made her Festival debut in 2010. Just to cement the family lineage there, the final race on the Friday afternoon is also named in his father's honour.
Henderson lives for these mad March days, when a gauzy mist descends upon Prestbury Park and the 'Cheltenham roar' rends the peace of the Cotswolds asunder. But the glories have been interspersed with some terrible memories. "I can remember bloody awful times," he says. "I just try to forget them. "In 1984, I had Childown, who was virtually favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. I adored him. He was nearly the best four-year-old in England. And he was pulled up after the second.
"He broke his leg, had to be put down. I was down there with him. This poor horse was on the ground, and See You Then, whom I just inherited from Ireland, had just gone into the lead. As it turned out, he got beaten. See You Then would have been our first Festival winner, but I didn't give a monkeys. I had only trained him for 10 days and the horse I loved was on the ground. It was awful."
See You Then, with his three straight Champion Hurdle victories, would go on to join the pantheon of Henderson winners, alongside Remittance Man, Bacchanal and, of course, Sprinter Sacre. Only Kauto Star has recorded a higher official rating than Sprinter since the days of Arkle. Indeed, when Henderson arranged for Sprinter to appear at Punchestown in 2013, it was written locally that nobody except the Pope had received a more effusive Irish welcome. Scarcely could he have envisaged that his pride and joy would, after seemingly intractable heart problems, star last year in one of sport's most stirring comebacks, beating Mullins favourite Un de Sceaux to win the Champion Chase for a second time.
"If you come down to one horse, to one day, it has to be that," Henderson says, grinning. "I had mentioned the week before, at the Sydney Arms in Chelsea, that Sprinter was in pretty good shape. People just said, 'Listen, Henderson, stop being such a sentimental, soppy old git.' There was this whole idea that it couldn't happen, but it did.
"Even the Irish came on to our side. You just felt it was something that the whole racecourse wanted to happen. It rather sums up Cheltenham and the people. I don't think there can be many sports where even the opposition finish up happy to have been beaten."
As he pursues his 56th win, with Buveur D'Air, Brain Power and My Tent Or Yours representing his strongest hand in the Champion Hurdle, Henderson never loses sight of Cheltenham's singularity.
"People who haven't been around racing will never appreciate what it is like. I used to work with a lovely owner, Lynn Wilson, and a good horse called Blue Royal. In 2000, he jumped the last in front, but Istabraq was cruising on his quarters. We finished third, a brilliant result. Then, when Istabraq came in to that wall of Irish noise, Lynn turned to me - he had been involved in cricket, rugby, countless sports - and said, 'I will never experience anything like that again.' He was so proud of the day and the horse."
Henderson pauses, trying to internalise the full power of the memory. "It summed up the whole thing for me," he says. "It just means so much. (© Daily Telegraph, London)