Paul Hayward: Nicky Henderson's record-breaking day is tinged with sadness
ONE figure was missing when Nicky Henderson accepted his fourth prize of a record-breaking day.
Up there on the podium, Cheltenham’s leading trainer took the memento from Di Winter, widow of his mentor, Fred, whose two remaining daughters were there to support their mother.
Absent forever was Winter’s third daughter, Jo, who took her own life in December, to the deep shock of Lambourn’s racing community. Henderson had just won the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle with the 40-1 shot Une Artiste to complete a 3,382-1 four-timer, which put paid to Fulke Walwyn’s Cheltenham Festival record of 40 winners, set from 1946-86. Di, Denise and Philippa huddled together and shared Henderson’s euphoria.
Jo Winter would have been there too. Henderson sent horses to her 20-box livery yard to be looked after. Two hours earlier he had been reminiscing about his years as Fred Winter’s assistant in the mid-1970s.
Those golden-era days, when jumping racing yards were run by benign dictators, were Henderson’s grounding in the democratic carnival laid on by the Festival each March. As Simonsig, Bobs Worth and Finian’s Rainbow all passed the post in front, he was not to know that his final winner of a blissful day would be so wrenching.
Henderson can train odds-on shots and he can hit the spot with outsiders. Une Artiste flew in out of the blue under Jeremiah McGrath. The communion at the end with the Winter family reaffirmed how the Lambourn trainer’s life has always revolved around the annual quest for winners at a Festival that also entranced Walwyn and Winter.
At Eton Henderson had a picture of Walwyn’s Mill House on his wall. “The other boys had pictures of girls,” he said after Simonsig had brought him winner No41. The boy with the photo of a steeplechaser was a Festival obsessive.
“Cheltenham has always been his God,” said David Minton, the bloodstock agent and Henderson ally.
Sprinter Sacre’s thrilling win on Tuesday had taken him level with Walwyn and then came the deluge. Training four Festival winners in a day is about as easy as memorising the complete works of Shakespeare. Henderson has always been a high-roller on the jumping scene but at 61 has reached his pomp.
As Minton says: “He’s had 140 winners this year. I’m not saying he’ll catch Paul [Nicholls] in the trainers race, but he won’t be far behind.”
“It’s lovely to set a new [Festival] mark but in truth I’m rather overawed,” Henderson said. “With Fulke you’re talking about a legend. I used to be assistant trainer and amateur rider at Fred Winter’s yard next door to Fulke’s and in those days it seemed very unlikely that I’d be here doing this.”
The rivalry between Walwyn and Winter was so fierce that staff in both camps used to talk of the other lot, “over the wall.” Though he comes over as an amiable, squire-like figure, Henderson has been exposed to National Hunt racing’s most competitive tendencies from the start.
He gave thanks for his owners and name-checked his head lad, 'Corky’ Browne, who has seen all 44 Festival winners, from First Bout, See You Then and The Tsarevich in 1985 to this week’s famous five. Michael Buckley, owner of Finian’s Rainbow, is another stalwart of the yard.
“Nicky trains his horses purposely to come here. Just recently the standard of horses has been upgraded,” Minton said. “He doesn’t really start with them until November so they’re all ready to peak here. It’s purely his love of Cheltenham, through his father [Johnny], initially, and he rode winners here.”
From Minton there was no comfort for Nicholls, Donald McCain, Alan King or David Pipe, all masters of the same trade: “It’s going to go on. It’s 44 now and he could go on and on. He has more serious hopes at this meeting – Riverside Theatre, then Long Run and Burton Port on Friday.
“He has a wonderful spread of horses, from chasers to hurdlers, everything. I’ve been with him ever since he started. I buy 70 per cent of his horses. We do it together. It’s purely team work. Sprinter Sacre was a little bit lucky because I bought a job lot for Raymond [Mould, his owner] in France. There were 21 horses and he happened to be one of them. He was a two year-old. Hopefully he can go on and be a history horse.”
Walwyn is described affectionately by a contemporary Lambourn sage as being “underwhelmed by everything — probably the result of everyone in his orbit having looked up to him for so long.” It was said he never recovered from the death of his Ten Plus in the 1989 Gold Cup.
In the winner’s enclosure with Une Artiste, Henderson revealed that he was wearing a suit owned by his late father, Johnny, who, he said, “had been instrumental in the success of Cheltenham” by forming a Jockey Club consortium to buy the course in 1963.
His last thought of a wonderful day was: “Dad and Fred Winter were the two most influential people in my life.”