The countdown to the National Hunt Festival is in its final stages and it is a stressful time for jumps trainers, probably the most stressful. With obvious understatement, "not much fun" is how Nicky Henderson summarises a day's racing at Ascot last month.
Other words may have been passing through his mind as he reflected on how his hopes for victory in two of the best races at Cheltenham took a battering. Tiutchev, among the favourites for the Champion Chase, was laid low by colic, and Artic Jack, whom Henderson saw as a fine Royal & SunAlliance Chase candidate, performed "as flat as a pancake". The previous afternoon, Henderson's then Triumph Hurdle favourite, Volano, had been turned over at Sandown. "These preps are horrible," states Henderson. "Newbury was a good weekend, the week before was good, that Ascot weekend was awful. What happened to us will happen to all sorts of people before Cheltenham. It's a pretty brutal time. You're going to have a few sleepless nights."
The much better weekend at Newbury saw Bacchanal and Marlborough confirmed among the leading candidates for the Gold Cup. Henderson already had Landing Light as third favourite for the Champion Hurdle, and a potent second string for that race in Geos. With Tiutchev also on the team sheet, the Seven Barrows stable just might have taken the headline event on each of the three days at the Festival.
Questioned shortly after that scenario had become a longshot, Henderson concedes that this season's team of horses is his strongest ever, but that assessment has acquired a baggage car full of cautions and provisos.
It may not help him to know that, when the Festival finally gets underway and punters are assailed on all sides by possible winners, many will automatically place their faith in him: among those currently with a licence, Henderson is the top trainer at the meeting. One set of statistics may give that honour to Martin Pipe, with 25 winners compared to Henderson's 24, but when it comes to Pipe's losers, nobody has had the time to count.
Suffice to say that, in the latest Festival, Pipe sent out 48 runners for one winner, whereas Henderson had 17 for his four. On the other hand, it is just as well that a reputation for big-race success lives or dies at Cheltenham, because Henderson has been without a winner in the last six years at the sport's second Festival, Aintree. With such a short gap between the meetings, and the competition so demanding, that contrast might not be totally unconnected to his horses running so well at Prestbury Park. The 51-year-old is not known for a scatter-gun strategy with his Festival runners. He is deeply respectful of the intensity of the competition, and mindful of the harm that can be done in search of the glory.
"The young horses," he says, "they're the ones you need to be terribly careful with. Because if you get stuck in before they're ready for it, then the damage you do is untold." Henderson's stable is full of some of the best-looking young horses in the business and his owners have the resources to shop for choice stock in France, as well as the more traditional nurseries in Ireland.
Mick Fitzgerald, the stable jockey who is another man for the big occasion, speaks in awe of Henderson's Festival record. "His ability to get the horses right on the big day is second to none, and I really don't know how he does it. Horses' whole seasons are geared up for Cheltenham. You can bet your bottom dollar that those horses will arrive on that day at Cheltenham in the form of their lives. When I got offered a job to ride for him, it was one of the things that made me really want to take it. He's a great man to ride for a very good loser as well as a very good winner. He's been doing it a long time and he knows how difficult it can be to have winners at the Cheltenham Festival."
When Henderson himself rode as an amateur, his successes included the Imperial Cup and the Aintree Fox Hunters', the latter on his own horse Happy Warrior, but he never won a race at the Festival, taking one ride each year from 1974 to 1978, in the course of which he fell twice and enjoyed his best finishing position when fifth in the 1975 Kim Muir.
Urbane and approachable, Henderson embarked on a racing career after his father's stockbroking firm proved rather less stimulating. He was assistant to Fred Winter and the two men have remained on close terms, even after the pupil had beaten the master in a close battle for the first of his two training championships (1985/6 and 1986/7). Henderson took out a training licence in July 1978 and his first Cheltenham Festival victory came in 1985, in the Champion Hurdle with See You Then.
The trainer added another two Festival wins that year and See You Then took two more Champion Hurdles. They remain Henderson's greatest training achievement. "He was very peculiar and very unsound," he says. "Yes, getting him there every year was a year's work." It comes as something of a surprise to be reminded of Henderson's record, or lack of it, in the Gold Cup. "We've had a lot of horses you hope might have been Gold Cup horses, but crikey, you start every season thinking and hoping," says the trainer. One of those horses, owned like Bacchanal by Lady Lloyd Webber, was Raymylette, who died during an operation on the eve of the Festival in 1995.
As it is, Henderson has had just one Gold Cup runner and he is one for the racing quizzes – Raffi Nelson who was pulled up at 100-1 in 1981. It is not a price you will get about any Henderson horses next week.
Nicky Henderson at the Festival: Biggest successes: Triumph Hurdle: 1985 First Bout, 1987 Alone Success, 1999 Katarino. Champion Hurdle: 1985, 1986 & 1987 See You Then. Queen Mother Champion Chase: 1992 Remittance Man.