Henderson the doyen of trainers blessed with a strong constitution
Legendary English trainer Nicky Henderson was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and he would be right to be proud of his overall prowess in training 72 Cheltenham Festival winners.
The doyen of trainers looks to be in a good position to add to his standing on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s Festival, with the unbeaten Foundation in the Champion Hurdle feature race.
If successful, it would take Henderson, 72, a record ninth win in the run which began with See You Then, who won the first of his three in 1985.
Henderson – whose late father Johnny was an aide-de-camp to Montgomery, or ‘Monty’ as he was known – had racing running through his veins from an early age.
He tried banking after leaving Eton but quickly realized it wasn’t for him.
“I used to sit there reading The Sporting Life with the outside pages of the Financial Times folded up to avoid detection,” he told the Racing Post in 2020.
“But with only my one A level in French I was never cut out for it.”
Six trainers’ titles and the all-important Grand National race bar have proved he made the right choice.
But, according to former stable jockey Mick Fitzgerald, it is his ability to face the dark days that sets him apart.
“The only thing in horse racing is that you lose a lot more than you win,” Fitzgerald told AFP.
“One thing about Nicky Henderson is that he is a great loser and a great winner.
“When he loses he doesn’t swallow and disappear, he faces it and is very happy to do an interview.
“We’re all gone, I did it, wanting the earth to swallow you up. That’s not it.”
– ‘King of the Hill’ –
Fitzgerald – whose most famous wins were in the 1999 Cheltenham Gold Cup and the 1996 Grand National on Henderson horses – does not say that another of his former boss’s traits is staying calm.
“It’s easy to lose faith and try things because you panic. With Nicky there is no panic,” said the Irishman, who is 52 years old.
“He’s a very good race watcher because he can see a lot more because he doesn’t get too emotional when he looks at his horses.
Henderson’s recipe for being competitive is as far as being able to move with the times, according to fellow trainer Jamie Snowden – who was his assistant from 2004-08.
“He’s an amazing trainer,” Snowden told AFP.
“He’s changed and remodeled his methods over the years.
“His roots are very traditional and in that aspect of training I would like to hope that we follow him in maintaining as much as we can.
“He’s a wonderful man who still has the love and hunger to win races.
Fitzgerald says there was never an angry word between him and Henderson in the 15 years they were a team and, unlike some trainers, there was open discussion about tactics.
“There is a debate about the best way to ride the horse,” he said.
“He had a good understanding with all the jockeys who have ridden for him: Richard Dunwoody before me, Barry Geraghty after me and now Nico de Boinville.
“He doesn’t put you under too much pressure, he’s always got your back.
“He called me king of the mountain.”
Fitzgerald – who had four wins for Henderson at the 2000 Cheltenham Festival which saw him finish as top jockey – says there is a reason owners still flock to his stables.
“He loves Cheltenham and a lot of his owners have horses because of that,” Fitzgerald said.
“Nicky has proven over the years that he is very good at getting the horses primed.
“He never rushes a horse, he lets them tell him when they’re ready.
“He’s really good at listening to them and peaking at the right time.”