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‘A horrendous, catastrophic, unbelievably stupid error’

Legendary English trainer Henderson rallies to the cause of racing after damage of Elliott incident

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Nicky Henderson: “There’ll be lots of tears for lots of reasons. A cloud is over Cheltenham, I have no doubt.''

Nicky Henderson: “There’ll be lots of tears for lots of reasons. A cloud is over Cheltenham, I have no doubt.''

Nicky Henderson: “There’ll be lots of tears for lots of reasons. A cloud is over Cheltenham, I have no doubt.''

The invitation arrives to spend a morning at Seven Barrows, Nicky Henderson’s pastoral idyll and the equine equivalent of The Shelbourne, for a timely reminder of what it means to respect an animal. For 16 days, racing has been battered by the scandal unleashed by a picture of Gordon Elliott sitting astride a dead horse, and nobody is more pained than the normally avuncular Henderson, given the shadow it has cast over his beloved Cheltenham Festival.

A horrendous, catastrophic, unbelievably stupid error,” says Henderson, who turned 70 last December but whose passion to protect his sport is undimmed. “Gordon will regret it for the rest of his life.”

It is an appalling image, with Elliott perched on the horse’s lifeless body in a pose not dissimilar to a trophy hunter’s, and Henderson, six times British jump racing’s champion trainer, is not about to offer any mitigation. “I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it, to be honest with you. It’s unthinkable. We’ve all done something in our lives that we have regretted, but this is ridiculous.”

Racing’s ultimate challenge over the next four days is somehow to heal the scar tissue that Elliott’s crassness has created. That path will be far from smooth, given that Cheltenham will, for the first time, be staged as a ghost event, its empty grandstands serving as a bleak echo of its perceived recklessness in letting in 60,000 fans a day last March, in the same week that Boris Johnson warned many families would “lose loved ones before their time” from coronavirus.

The great carnival of the National Hunt calendar will unfold without the fabled Cheltenham roar. And yet for Henderson, the emotions will seldom have been so acute, as he calls on the racing community to present a nobler face to the world in the wake of the Elliott ignominy.

“There’ll be lots of tears for lots of reasons,” he explains. “A cloud is over Cheltenham, I have no doubt. There are antis out there who don’t approve of racing, and something like this is just what they want. But we have to show to everybody that this is a fantastic sport, and that one very isolated incident shouldn’t tarnish it. There’s so much good in it. The only reason we do this is we love horses. With 99.9pc of the people in this game, the only thing we know is horses.”

Henderson is as persuasive an evangelist for his trade as you could hope to find. Barely has the sun peeked over the Berkshire horizon than the horses in his care are paraded before him, so that he can gauge exactly what they need for their morning exercise, and on which gallop. “Farringdon Road for you,” he barks at one jockey. “All-weather for you,” he tells another. At his side is his assistant, Charlie Morlock, who provides rapid-fire updates. Together, they make a formidable duo.

By his own admission, Henderson’s eyesight is failing him these days. I am standing barely two metres away and he says: “I can’t see your face.”  

Still, his ocular issues appear no barrier to his understanding of his animals. Driving alongside them on their walk back to the stables, he shouts his instructions to jockeys out of the window. “Good for one more run,” he assures one, listening to Morlock advising from the back seat. “No, that’ll do you,” he says to the next.

Henderson is never more chipper than when seeing his Cheltenham contenders thunder out of the mist still clearing in the Valley of the Racehorse. Watching them surge up the hill is such conditions is a rare privilege. The views of the verdant countryside are unbroken, save for a glimpse of Tony McCoy’s house in the distance, and the peace is pierced only by the approach of thundering hooves. Thrilled, Henderson declares that Santini and Champ, his two runners in the Gold Cup, have never looked better.

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His connection to Cheltenham runs deep. After all, it was his father, Johnny, once the long-serving aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Montgomery, who helped to save the place. “In 1968, he set up a non-profit-making company called Racecourse Holdings Trust, and he bought Cheltenham for £360,000 when it was under threat from developers. As a result, one of the races at the Festival is named after him. It’s pretty inspirational, because without him and a couple of other guys it might be a housing estate.”

For all that it is his love and his life, Cheltenham can also bring him intolerable stress. During this interview, Henderson’s wife, Sophie, wanders into the office to inform him that Energumene, the main threat to his ambitions of victory for Shiskin, has been withdrawn from the Arkle.

“Just shows you, doesn’t it?” he says. “Absolutely,” she replies. “It could happen to us.” Sure enough, a little later, it does, with confirmation that Altior is ruled out of the Champion Chase with a cough.

Altior will, you sense, be happy enough in his stable for the week. Such are the lengths to which Henderson will go for his horses, they even have their foot bath here, an extra layer of pampering introduced during the first lockdown. It is, as Cheltenham returns, a powerful reassurance that for all the damage inflicted by Elliott, there are places where a trainer’s bond with his magnificent creatures can never be broken.

“All this, it cannot be ruined by one totally unacceptable, idiotic incident,” Henderson argues. “I hope people realise one moment of madness shouldn’t lead to the destruction of a great sport.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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