When the gifts are handed out at Kempton each Boxing Day, Nicholas John Henderson becomes a cheeky chappie. He keeps popping back into the line.
In the season of giving, the Lambourn trainer has proved a most able recipient at Sunbury's Yuletide meeting. Last year was a beautiful example.
Fondmort took the first round on Boxing Day in a novices' hurdle, Bacchanal captured the Feltham Novices' Chase and Dusk Duel the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase. The following day Jocko Glasses also won his novices' hurdle and Geos the Christmas Hurdle. The others scrapped over the leftovers.
But then Henderson's success at Kempton is no accident. When the man surveys the National Hunt landscape at the start of a campaign he sees two twinkling peaks. Far off is the Everest of the Cheltenham Festival – where, with 24 winners, he is just one behind Martin Pipe among active trainers – and in the middle distance is Mount Sunbury. "We're never early birds because the ground is always quick at the beginning of the season and we take a bit of time getting them ready," the trainer says. "But we like to be effective at this time of the year. It's a serious team again going to Kempton, but, crikey, they are big battles."
It probably pays Henderson to do well at the meeting. There could be a stable revolt without the balm of success. Among the many mouths that will be fed tomorrow are those of racehorses. The lads and lasses at Seven Barrows will see animals nourished before they can sit down with their own families.
"Sunday is a normal day so that half of them can have Christmas day off," Henderson says. "They have to work every other Christmas.
"The whole of the 10 days after Christmas – Kempton, then Newbury and Cheltenham is crucial – and you can hardly lock the doors and say help yourself to a bucket of feed. Nothing stops."
It will be 10 years in June since Peter Walwyn's string turned out of Seven Barrows for the last time and Henderson moved in. The jumping man has enjoyed the supervision of some supremely talented horses in that decade, but many believe he is now in possession of his best team in depth ever.
"I've got some lovely young horses and I mean seriously nice," the trainer confirms. "It's very nice when you have the likes of Bacchanal and Marlborough, both Grade One-winning chasers who could be King George and Gold Cup horses, and Geos and Landing Light, who are in the Champion Hurdle bracket. But you need those that fill in in every department and we have some particularly nice three-year-olds this year. You have got to have it across the board."
There is a tantalising reward for any trainer who can demonstrate his strength in depth, and luck, in 48 hours' time. Those who participate in a treble linking the Feltham Novices' Chase, the Christmas Hurdle and the King George VI Chase are liable to their share of £100,000. Henderson considers this a near mission impossible, but at least he is represented in each leg.
"Don't forget we are talking about Wednesday," he says. "Even a few days is an awful long time in any horse's life. If all three get there in one piece that will be in itself a near miracle."
This, however, is the time of the year when we celebrate miracles, and, in Katarino, Henderson has the perfect horse to begin his assault on the improbability. The former Triumph Hurdle winner has had trouble with his wind, though it was repaired enough for him to blow away the opposition on his seasonal reappearance. The six-year-old appears to have just one horse, Valley Henry, Paul Nicholls's representative, between him and victory. "He's in great form," Henderson says. "He couldn't breathe last year, but it worked at Newbury and now it's got to work again. Him and Valley Henry look about the two best staying novices at the moment. Now we'll find out which is the best."
Landing Light is second favourite behind Istabraq for the Champion Hurdle, largely because he won the consolation for last season's championship at Sandown. His return success in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle was no reason to get the bunting out, yet it was victory delivered in the manner of a most professional racehorse. "He is a horse with plenty of pace," Henderson says. "He has come on well from his run at Newcastle, so here we go."
After the Christmas Hurdle comes the big one, the King George VI Chase, in which the Seven Barrows representative is Bacchanal, who would not be an inappropriate winner in the middle of the festive season. There is more than just topicality on the seven-year-old's side though as we already know him to be a championship horse on the basis of his Stayers' Hurdle success last year.
There are the leviathans of First Gold and Best Mate to overcome, but Bacchanal will not be let down by stamina in his quest to overturn a statistical oddity. For, despite his many glories across the calendar and, especially at Kempton's Yuletide gathering, Henderson has never won a King George. While he has scooped up all the trimmings, the main dish has proved elusive.
Among others, Remittance Man, who was a much more effective animal over shorter distances, was third behind The Fellow in 1991, while Travado failed to complete in 1993 and the following year. Henderson still feels the sting of those defeats and hopes the dock leaf has arrived this time around.
"We go back to Remittance Man and a piece of trainer error," he says. "And then Travado fell twice when going really well. I was running two-mile horses in those days. At least now I'm trying to do it with a proper stayer."Reuse content