Racing: Facts support Henderson's National case

A trainer who has endured agonising near misses in Aintree's showpiece has his challenger primed for success this year. By Richard Edmondson; Grand National Meeting: Fiddling the fax gives a scare but today's fear is tackling the big fences in the Fox Hunters'
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A WEEK AGO today Nicky Henderson's Grand National dreams were reduced to tatters. The Lambourn trainer was informed that his Amazonian mare, Fiddling The Facts, was no longer qualified to run in the great race.

"This fax came on some official Aintree notepaper telling us that mares were being banned because they distracted the geldings," he says. Henderson was momentarily in despair. And then he noticed the date in the corner of his newspaper.

It is easier to joke about the Grand National before you actually arrive at Aintree and witness those great Andes of spruce punctuating a bleak Merseyside landscape. Nicholas John Henderson has ridden successfully over the Liverpool fences and has also come fiendishly close to winning the big one in his 19 attempts as a trainer. He has heard the opinions that modifications have made the contest about as terrifying as a wicker basket full of kittens. He does not believe them. For Henderson this remains a race apart.

"If you win the Gold Cup you've probably got the best horse and this is a handicap and not everyone's cup of tea," he says, "but it's the history, the pageantry that goes with the race, that makes it unique. It gives everyone a buzz.

"The National is a world event and it's very special. They've really built it back up in recent years to the event it should be. Sure the fences have been modified since the old days, but I'm certainly not going to say it's an easy race. I'm as frightened now about running horses as I ever was riding in it."

And he was certainly more than a tinge scared even when he won at the old place. That was in 1977, when Happy Warrior collected the Foxhunters' Chase as his jockey did a fair impression of a barnacle. "It was a bit hairy because unfortunately we didn't have a breastgirth on the horse and the saddle finished round his tail," Henderson says. "It was a bit scary at the time, but fun when you look back on it."

Henderson himself can reflect on a six-year, amateur-riding career which spawned 75 winners. When he changed hats (a trilby for a helmet) and began training at Windsor House in Lambourn he was gifted a horse called See You Then.

This was a malevolent creature which would kill you if his domain was breached. He did however accomplish a similar act to opponents on the racecourse and, in 1987, completed a hat-trick in the Champion Hurdle. "He's taken loads of chunks out of me over the years," Henderson said at the time. "I give him a carrot every night and he still hates me."

By 1992, however, Henderson had become too popular. He did a yard swap with Peter Walwyn and moved to the larger Seven Barrows barracks just down the road, the premises which had nurtured the 1975 Derby winner, Grundy.

This complex is notable in Lambourn for possessing its own private gallops. It takes its name from the heaps of earth on site, the barrows, which hide Saxon tombs. There should be a further burial hump for its master's Grand National aspirations because, try as he might, this is one of the few majors to have eluded Henderson.

Old Zongalero was second, as was The Tsarevich. Classified was third and fifth, and Brown Windsor fourth. Just recently, though, the fortunes have been appalling. The last three horses Henderson has run in the Grand National have not managed to land on four hooves over the first fence.

"It's extraordinary isn't it," he says, "especially as you try to pick the right ones for the race. It's a different day and you don't take running a horse in this race lightly because there are still difficult obstacles. The top priority is that the horses all come back in one piece and after that we'll just see how we go.

"I don't think we'll dare watch the start on Saturday. It's a good job you can't see much at Liverpool because it's all you can do to force yourself to watch the race."

Fiddling The Facts has certainly been worth watching throughout the season. She was third to Teeton Mill on her seasonal debut in the Hennessy Gold Cup and has finished runner-up on her remaining starts - to Kendal Cavalier in the Welsh National, Him Of Praise in Uttoxeter's National Trial and, most recently, to Young Kenny in the Grand National Trial at Haydock.

If this well-named runner (she is by Orchestra out of the Furry Glen mare, Facts 'N Fancies) succeeds on Saturday she will be the first of her gender to do so since Nickel Coin in 1951.

"We were always really thinking of the Irish National for her but we've got drawn into this as she'd have got top weight on drying ground at Fairyhouse," Henderson says. "The 10st 3lb on soft ground at Aintree is far better for her.

"She's had only four races and certainly tiredness won't be a factor. The horses that had hard races at Cheltenham are entitled to be more weary than she is. She's had a nice break."

Nicky Henderson remains in good form after an astonishingly rewarding spring which has taken him to fourth place in the trainers' championship. Another winner at Ascot yesterday took him to 65 successes for the campaign. Numbers though do not mean as much as they once did. Now it is their identity which matters most. "We have got very close to the Grand National in the past," he says, "and I'm very keen to crack it."

That eventuality would certainly lead to a volley of celebratory faxes. Some of them might even be genuine.