Racing: Is Indien man enough for triumph over hurdles?

If there was such a thing as an equine catwalk, Etendard Indien would stand apart from his mostly jump-bred brethren. Flashy, just that little bit pleased with himself, the type to preen for the cameras. And for the moment, at least, boasting that comparative rarity for male National Hunt horses, the retention of his manhood.

If there was such a thing as an equine catwalk, Etendard Indien would stand apart from his mostly jump-bred brethren. Flashy, just that little bit pleased with himself, the type to preen for the cameras. And for the moment, at least, boasting that comparative rarity for male National Hunt horses, the retention of his manhood.

Whether Nicky Henderson's four-year-old has the balls required to add another Triumph Hurdle victory to the stable's trio - First Bout in 1985, Alone Success in 1987 and Katarino in 1999 - who have already emerged, well, triumphant from that most exacting and pitiless of examinations for any four-year-old is another matter.

If looks won prizes, the Triumph Hurdle, the opening event on Friday week at the Cheltenham Festival, would already be destined for this Group Three-winning stayer on the Flat in France when trained by André Fabre. That plus an affinity, which not all Flat horses have, for the sudden imposition of obstacles.

Not for the first occasion, Henderson is experiencing the vagaries of Cheltenham preparation. Etendard Indien's first outing over hurdles was a facile success. At Newbury on Friday, he capitulated from the second last. The trainer, who attributed the defeat to the colt's jumping and the ground, still has the Festival in mind for him. But Hender-son knows better than most how exacting and pitiless an examination Cheltenham can be.

"On the day you've got to have the temperament and a toughness, because these races are fierce-tough," declares Henderson. "It's nothing like a normal race. You never get a false-run race. You always know they're going to go at an ultra-fast pace and it's going to be very, very competitive. There's no room for mistakes, or the faint-hearted."

If any trainer comprehends what it takes to claim one of the Festival showpiece events it is Henderson, whose 30-year career in the sport began the moment the then amateur rider eschewed the prospect of a potentially prosperous career as a stockbroker and instead joined the legendary trainer Fred Winter as his assistant. He was supported in that endeavour by his late father, Johnny, after whom the Grand Annual Chase has been named this year. It is a well-merited prefix. Without Henderson Snr, Cheltenham racecourse itself might not have survived back in the Sixties. It was Henderson who founded Racecourse Holdings Trust (RHT), a Jockey Club subsidiary, in 1964.

"My father recognised that somebody needed to get a grip on these racecourses before they were lost, and ensured that at least some were owned by racing itself," said his son. The RHT now have 13 courses under their auspices.

Those courses have pulled through. Now it is jump racing as a code that is in jeopardy, imperiled by the number of small fields, the public perception of equine injuries, the advent of all-weather Flat racing, and the ban on hunting. "You do worry about it, because it has been under threat," says Henderson. "I'd be confident that it will survive, though. The hunting ban is sad, but it's not the nail in the coffin of jump racing. As for Cheltenham, I've no doubt that it will be here for many years to come."

The same can be said for Henderson, 54. "It's odd, really; I wasn't meant to be training horses at all. I was meant to be in the City. That would probably have been an easy sort of life, wouldn't it? Fortunately, I went to Fred. He was the trainer, a man of integrity and honesty, and a great sportsman. It was a wonderful place to be, and I was learning off the right man."

He was educated so well, in fact, that no fewer than 25 Cheltenham winners have been the result, of which Remittance Man's 1992 Queen Mother Champion Chase and See You Then's Champion Hurdle three-timer in the mid-Eighties were the zenith.

Henderson admits he is "not a good watcher of races". The last two Festivals have not made a pleasing spectacle. Both have been barren for his Seven Barrows yard, which nestles in the Lambourn Downs, and, indeed, there was a time when the dreaded virus struck in the winter that this year's Cheltenham assault appeared in doubt, too.

Fortunately, it proved a relatively brief hiatus in Henderson's pre-Cheltenham programme. Since emerging from those desperate weeks, his team have prospered. His best expectation is Trabolgan in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase (although he may just possibly contest the Gold Cup). "If back to his Feltham Novice Chase form [when just run out of it by Ollie Magern at Kempton on Boxing Day] he has a great chance," says Henderson.

Other prime contenders include: Fondmort (the Daily Telegraph Trophy's 2m 5f is "tailor-made"); Dancing Bay (Coral Cup); and Papini (Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Handicap Hurdle).

Even in this shivering week, Henderson's horses had a certain presence. Something convinces you that after darkness, there will be light.

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