Wednesday 29 January 2020

Video: Henderson odds-on to smash record

National Hunt Trainer Nicky Henderson with Long Run at Severn Barrows stables on February 28, 2012 in Lambourn, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
National Hunt Trainer Nicky Henderson with Long Run at Severn Barrows stables on February 28, 2012 in Lambourn, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Marcus Armytage

It is a safe bet that by Friday evening Nicky Henderson, currently on 39 Festival winners, will not only have equalled Fulke Walwyn's long-held record of 40 but overtaken it to become the most successful trainer in the meeting's history.

He has assembled a team of such strength and depth that 11 of the 40 horses he will take to Cheltenham will start first or second favourite, five of them today. The only surprise is that the trainer himself is not favourite to emerge from this week as top dog. In that, according to the bookmakers, he must defer to Carlow handler Willie Mullins.

Henderson -- who has formed a fruitful partnership with Barry Geraghty in recent seasons -- would tell you that in Walwyn's day the meeting barely stretched to three days and the opportunities were fewer. The counter-argument, though, is that the Festival is now more competitive.

Even with this astonishing firepower, the trainer repeatedly says happiness on Friday night would be "just one winner".

"He is, quite rightly, obsessed with Cheltenham and his record speaks for itself," insisted syndicate manager Henry Ponsonby.

"You can't go without the horse and much of it must be down to his buying policy, particularly the French connection. Otherwise I don't think he's doing an awful lot different."

Well connected and well trained by Fred Winter, from the outset Henderson (61) was rarely without a good horse and, within a decade of taking out his licence, in 1978, his reputation was established.

By then he had guided the fragile See You Then to three Champion Hurdle victories, contributing to his two trainers' championships in 1985-86 and 1986-87.

However, See You Then and 1992 Champion chaser Remittance Man apart, he ticked along with some admittedly smart horses but without any real world beaters or household names.

He notched up a respectable 60 or 70 winners a season but never looked likely to lift the Gold Cup, another Champion Hurdle or another Champion Chase.

When he bought his Seven Barrows base in 1992 you even wondered how he might fill it but, four or five years ago, when many trainers of 30 years' standing might have been looking at a fast approaching sell-by date, Henderson's career took off. Last year he clocked his best tally yet of 153 winners and the tide in the trainers' championship is slowly turning his way. It is almost inevitable he will regain his title at some stage in the next couple of years.

It is no coincidence that he and Paul Nicholls source their horses from the same Highflyer bloodstock agency of Anthony Bromley and David Minton.

"His success probably comes down to some extremely good owners who have upped their game and the standard of horse has improved," said Minton.

Since the outset, Henderson's training has been characterised by tunnel vision when it comes to the Festival, possibly subconsciously inspired by his father, Johnny, who, as head of Racecourse Holdings Trust, saved Cheltenham for racing. Henderson's seasons have always been measured by what went on in that third week of March and on eight occasions he has been either top trainer at the meeting or joint-top.

Being the acknowledged Festival specialist has helped him corner the market in well-heeled owners prepared to spend six-figure sums. Henderson's faithful long-standing owners such as Michael Buckley, the Hanburys, Judy Wilson and Robert Waley-Cohen have been swelled by other patrons with serious purchasing power including Limerick man JP McManus.

"If you don't have the owners you're not going to get the best horses and you can't do it without the horses," points out Mick Fitzgerald, his former long-time stable jockey. Henderson, it seems, has the horses and many chances. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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