Racing: Big occasion brings out best in Henderson

Veteran of Seven Barrows heads for his favourite meeting of the year with the adrenalin pumping and an in-form yard

If punters but knew it, the greater miracle is not so much winning a race, but getting to the track in the first place. Horses are in one sense tough as teak, half a ton of athlete that can gallop straight through a steeplechase fence and come out the other side still upright, spitting out birch. But when it comes to injuries and ailments they are as a princess to a pea. They can find the only stone on acres of downland on which to tread; sift the air for the most inoffensive of cold germs.

The shocking fate of Jair Du Cochet last week is indicative of the fine line involved. But, touching whole forests, Nicky Henderson goes into his favourite meeting of the year with his team in the rudest of health. Seven victories in valuable Saturday features, a million pounds in prize money; tails are up at Seven Barrows. "The most extraordinary thing about those Saturday wins is that they were in handicaps," said Henderson. "I mean, I've always thought our horses were pretty well exposed. But yes, I have to say I've been pleased with them."

Henderson, 53, is not one to hide his heart in an innermost vest pocket. The term wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) could have been coined for him, and what you get at the moment is straightforward excitement. His assessment of his charges' achievements on the track may be understated in words, but the blue eyes that still brim with the emotion, good or bad, of any given moment give away the pleasure felt.

Thirty-six years with a licence have not dimmed Henderson's enthusiasm, even if it is overlaid at this time of year with tension, pressure and nervous anticipation.

One evening last week Lambourn, the self-styled valley of the racehorse, lay still. Outside Seven Barrows, Henderson's historic establishment (there are actually 14 of the Bronze Age burial mounds dotted about its 400 acres of gallops), the only sound was the cawing of high-nesting rooks. The landscape was chill and dry, a bare palette with barely yet a hint of spring. By contrast, the activity within was electric as the trainer zapped from box to box and barn to barn, checking on the well-being of some 110 horses in 45 minutes flat. All looked more serene than the man anxiously feeling precious tendons, stroking glossy necks.

Eighteen are off to the Cotswolds this week. Henderson has an outstanding record at the Cheltenham Festival: his 25 victories have been surpassed only by Martin Pipe's 30 among current trainers and he has been champion or joint champion seven times at the meeting. The squad is headed by Gold Cup contender Irish Hussar, in whose box Henderson stands longest in admiration. The eight-year-old's bay hide positively glows with well-being.

"I've been pleased with them all year," he said. "There was one little patch last month when I thought they were starting to go funny but about 10 days ago their coats really began to bloom. That's always encouraging; if they look well in their skins the chances are they might run well. The best horse in the world won't win a race if it's not healthy."

Cheltenham has been so much part of the fabric of Henderson's life that he cannot specifically remember his first visit there. He remembers his first Festival victory, though. "I should do," he said, "it was See You Then in his first Champion Hurdle. It took us long enough to get it, though."

There is no horse of that established stature in the team this year, but those going are a good level bunch. "It would be fair enough to say that the accent is on youth," said Henderson. "Some of the old boys will be there too, though. If Marlborough and Geos saw the box leaving for Cheltenham and they weren't on it, they'd be furious."

Twelve-year-old Marlborough's stable door is decorated with fan-mail praising his evergreen success in the Racing Post Trophy last month. "That win, and Geos's in the Tote Gold Trophy, were specially nice, because we thought their best days were probably behind them, they're high in the handicap and we'd struggle to win another race with them."

Henderson, chainsmoking at a desk littered with vet's reports, is delighted not only to have his horses in good nick, but also his linchpin in the saddle, Mick Fitzgerald. "It would be so difficult going there without him, he knows the horses so well," said the trainer. "Cheltenham is a whole different thing, races with huge fields, all capable, all trying for their lives. The pace of the races is totally different, a flat-out gallop all the way. Horses have got to be fit, and they've got to be good." Whether they are good enough will soon be revealed.

"I think Irish Hussar is potentially the best horse on the place in terms of quality," he said. "Maybe the Gold Cup will be a year too soon but he's so well. In fact, they're all ready: Calling Brave, The Thunderer, Got One Too, Caracciola. The more you think about it the more impossibly competitive it is, but we've a good team of guys here doing a good job, and we'll be there."

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