Evening Standard

Highs and lows: Nicky Henderson with his Gold Cup hopeful Long Run and Binocular, who was forced to miss today's Champion Hurdle. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Forget the Cheltenham Festival being about the Irish, their horses and their wonderful punters.

The racing world is convinced that this year’s meeting is really a fight between two contrasting Englishmen.

In the blue corner is old Etonian Nicky Henderson – one race at the annual gathering is named after his father, Johnny Henderson.

In the red corner is Paul Nicholls, the son and grandson of policemen who hated school.

Both are in a race to be this season’s champion trainer, each having won more than £1million in prize money. Between them, they have as many favourites – eight – for the Festival’s 27 races as the Irish contingent.

But one man who will not accept that Cheltenham will be a straight duel between the English pair is Henderson himself.

“No, no, it doesn’t even enter our calculations,” he tells me. “I am not remotely interested in what Paul Nicholls is doing and neither is he interested in what I am up to.

“All I want is for our horses to go out there and do what they have to do to the best of their ability.”

This may not be quite the sort of feigned disinterest in the opposition that sporting figures like to strike in the run-up to major events.

Henderson is speaking even as he knows that the horse which could have won him a sixth Champion Hurdle, and set a new Cheltenham Festival record, will not run.

On Sunday morning, he withdrew Binocular only hours after he had described him to me as “the best horse in the country”.

Now last year’s champion hurdler is a non-runner as a steroid used to clear an allergic reaction will not be out of the horse’s system in time for him to take part in today’s event, the highlight on the opening day of the Festival.

There is no mistaking Henderson’s grief, as he says: “It is desperate, very, very sad and very unfortunate and unexpected.”

Henderson can comfort himself that, with Binocular’s problems having been detected in time, his heartache will not be compounded with facing disciplinary consequences.

Back in 2009, when the Queen’s mare Moonlit Path failed a drugs test, Henderson was banned from running horses for three months and handed a record £40,000 fine.

But, for the 60-year-old trainer, the real consolation will only come on Friday, at the climax of the Festival, should he win the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

And as talk turns to this, the most important of jump races, Henderson admits that he is, after all, in a duel with Nicholls – Henderson’s Long Run is up against Nicholls’s outstanding double act of Kauto Star and Denman. Nicholls has won the race four times, Henderson never.

“Winning the Gold Cup is everyone’s dream,” he adds. “To win the Gold Cup, you have to have the best horse. I wouldn’t like to retire without winning it. And with Long Run, this is the best chance we have ever had.

“Long Run won the King George VI Chase at Kempton [in January], where Kauto Star was expected to win for a record fifth time.

“I had the second horse in that race as well, Riverside Theatre. Sadly, he is injured and won’t be at the Cheltenham Festival.

“I don’t think we saw Kauto Star at his best that day. I am sure Paul will tell you that. And Long Run is only six years old. The last six-year-old to win the Gold Cup was Mill House [in 1963]. I was at school then.”

Henderson has a superstitious streak and this is highlighted when he reveals that, to guard against evil, he has even had a bet that he will not have a single winner at Cheltenham, which seems extraordinary.

Henderson needs only four winners to go past the 40 sent out by Fulke Walwyn and become the most successful trainer of all time at the Cheltenham Festival.

“Yeah, I took that bet,” he says. “It is a bit of a superstition. I am not betting against myself but it amused me that there was one firm of bookmakers offering 16-1 against us having no winner at Cheltenham.

“If I had no winners at Cheltenham over the four days, that would be the most disappointing thing in the world. I am running 42 horses. Somewhere in there, we would settle for one.

“I would willingly pay what I stand to lose to have a winner. If we don’t have a winner, at least I walk out of there on Friday night with a pocketful of dosh. It appealed to my sense of fun.”

It is this sense of fun, says Henderson, that has always motivated him to be a trainer. “If somebody asks me what I do, I tell them, ‘I am actually in the entertainment business’,” he says.

“Racing is meant to be fun. It has its moments when it sure isn’t. It is absolute hell. I’ve got to make this enjoyable for people. They have put a lot of money in it, it is not cheap. We work together, we play together and we enjoy together.”

This use of “we” may have echoes of the royal we but Henderson is keener to present his Seven Barrows yard at Lambourn as a vessel.

“I just drive a ship which has an awful lot of people on board,” he says. “The first part of it is the team that works for me at home. I am very lucky to have a fantastic team.

“The second part is the owners. I am lucky enough to have the best bunch of owners that any trainer has got in this country. We don’t do this on our own at all.”

Yet, for all his emphasis on being part of a collective, Henderson admits that when it comes to picking horses it is very much an individual choice.

Indeed, he has never stopped joshing owner Andy Stewart for not paying him a finder’s fee for spotting the owner’s smart hurdler Celestial Halo. This could not be more ironic.

The horse, trained by Nicholls, won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2008 and, the following year, was runner-up in the Champion Hurdle to Punjabi, Henderson’s horse.

Henderson explains: “It is an in-house joke. The only person to look at the horse was me. I recommended it to Andy through our joint agent, a good friend of ours, who buys horses for us. I told him that somebody ought to buy that horse. I hadn’t got anybody to buy him.”

So what does Henderson look for when picking a horse? His explanation may be politically incorrect but has a ring to it.

“Gentlemen are said to prefer blondes but, while I like two-legged blondes, I prefer four-legged brunettes. A wishy-washy coloured horse, we don’t like.”

However, there is one horse, far from a brunette, for whom Henderson sees a great future.

“White horses are called greys,” he says. “But very, very, occasionally you get one that is officially described as white. I have a white horse called The White Admiral. He is six years old and I love him to bits.

“In his passport, he is described as white and there have been only five white horses in history.”

Henderson is thankful that his own history turned out the way it did and that he was sent to Eton, whose current list of old boys includes the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London.

But had Field Marshal Montgomery had his way, Henderson would have ended up in the army. “My Dad was his ADC [Aide-de-camp] and Montgomery was my Godfather,” he explains. “He asked me which regiment I was going to join but that was unlikely.”

Instead, after Eton, Henderson became an amateur jockey and then, between 1974 and 1978, he was assistant trainer to Fred Winter before going off on his own.

He adds: “I was very lucky to work with the great man in his heyday. When you work with a great artist, great sportsman or great anything, you are an idiot if you don’t learn something. They are trying to teach you.

“You have to keep your eyes and ears open. What I learned was that training horses is mostly down to common sense. You either understand horses or you don’t.”

Henderson’s understanding of horses has made him champion trainer twice. Should he emerge as the most successful trainer at Cheltenham, it could boost his chances of beating current holder Nicholls and winning the crown for the first time since the 1986-87 season. Not that he wants to dwell on that. “I don’t think, at this point in the season, that is remotely important to me or even to Paul,” he says.

What Henderson wants to concentrate on is flying the English flag at Cheltenham. Like many people, he is convinced the recent collapse of the Irish economy will have no impact.

“The Irish contribution to Cheltenham will never be down. They will bring over a team of horses that will be very hard to beat. The Irish supporters will be there in their droves. That is part of the atmosphere of Cheltenham.

“This is not the Olympic Games. I am not wearing a British flag or shirt. But, at Cheltenham, there is a feeling at the end of each race – you know whether the winner is English or Irish. There is a very special feeling.”

For Henderson, that feeling will be all the more special if, on Friday, Long Run finally lands him the Gold Cup.


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