James Lawton: Henderson tips hat to his forefathers but quartet of wins shows he is the greatest
At Eton the trainer says he had a picture of Mill House on the wall while others had Page Three models
If Nicky Henderson could have drawn his own day, almost every last detail of it, it would surely have come up pretty close to the one that yesterday made him the record-breaking champion trainer at the world's greatest festival of jump racing.
Not only did it bathe the 61-year-old Etonian in unprecedented success when the morning haze in the Cotswolds was burned away by wintry sunshine and Henderson's Berkshire stable became a winning machine with four brilliant victories at odds of 3,382-1.
It also celebrated another life, one which, had it lasted long enough, would have seen Henderson's engulfing of the 40-win tally of the legendary Fulke Walwyn as a quite extraordinary personal reward.
That was the life of Henderson's father, Johnny, who has a race named after him here for his fight to save the valley arena from building developers 40-odd years ago. Six years ago, his son won that race and yesterday it seemed that no achievement on this daunting track was beyond him.
Henderson Senior also served the nation as the wartime aide-de-camp of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, a man who paid slavish attention to detail.
That, most of the racing world agreed last night, was one under-pinning of the horse trainer who started the day tied with the great Walwyn, then left him on a sharply lower rung in the rankings of National Hunt racing's most demanding terrain. Another is the touch that draws out quite relentlessly the best of his animals.
No, Henderson wouldn't have the day entirely reproduced. He wouldn't have the sickening crash of jockey Richard Johnson which forced the organisers to block off the last fence, a necessity that briefly imperilled the brilliant triumph in the Queen Mother Champion Chase of Finian's Rainbow as his jockey and Andrew Lynch, on the beaten champion Sizing Europe, swerved perilously away from the obstacle.
He wouldn't have had the news of the fourth equine fatality of the meeting, when Featherbed Lane broke a leg and was put down during the Coral Cup.
But then everything else he will keep to the last of his days.
They started under the tutelage of the great rider and trainer Fred Winter, who took him in as a trainee horse master soon after the boy obsessed by horse racing walked away from Eton.
Yesterday, with his Cheltenham win total at 44 as Finian's Rainbow's triumph was augmented by Simonsig in the Neptune Novice Hurdle, Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase and Une Artiste in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, Henderson went back to his formative years.
"Fred Winter was always a hero of mine," he said, shortly before the race named for his mentor, "and so of course I listened to everything he said and did. At Eton I had a picture of Mill House pinned up on the wall while the others had Page Three models. Rather sad, really."
There wasn't a hint of sadness yesterday, only the sense of a man who had fulfilled all of his hopes.
"It's a great day, almost unbelievable really, but I have so many people to thank. You cannot do something like this on your own, obviously, and Dad and Fred Winter were the most influential people in my life. We'll probably wake up and find it's all been a good dream.
"We've had a lot of great days but Cheltenham comes round once a year and to everyone here it is, whatever happens, the best four days. But it doesn't get better than this and it's lovely to win the Fred Winter. He was everything to me, friend, boss, mentor, tutor."
Around Henderson there is plainly building a similar aura. Barry Geraghty, the Irishman who inherited the fruits of the Henderson empire when Mick Fitzgerald took a serious injury in the Grand National four years ago, said after the third of his four wins at the meeting: "You have to be stunned by such a training feat. To bring so many horses here in such perfect condition is an amazing feat and you just have to be so pleased for him. He's had his setbacks and his knocks when he just keeps doing the job – brilliantly."
One of those reverses came three years ago when he was suspended for three months and fined for administering an illegal substance to the Queen's horse, Moonlit Path. It was an anti-bleeding drug and Henderson's defence was that he did it for the benefit of the horse's health and not the enhancement of its performance.
There was a sense that he came here, for all his past achievements, somewhat in the shadow of the behemoths Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls. It was a belief, though, which can now be officially posted as the misconception of people living in another world.
Henderson's blinding streak came, after all, just a day after the dramatic announcement of his thrilling young contender Sprinter Sacre – a horse for the ages, most respected judges insisted yesterday – and two days before a likely repeat of his stunning triumph here last spring in the Gold Cup.
With Long Run and Sprinter Sacre in his future, and memories of his superbly adroit handling of triple Champion Hurdle winner of the Eighties, See You Then, made so vivid it might have happened yesterday, Henderson is the man most conspicuously of both the past and the future.
Yesterday he filled the valley with the evidence of his patience and his prowess and this morning he wakes up not to a haunting dream but a vibrantly living reality. It is that all those years after pinning up the picture of one racing immortal, he too has touched the history of his game.
Not so many, perhaps, will pin up his picture for he has never looked so handsome, or moved so well, as Mill House. However, anyone drawn to racing will now be sure to know his name.
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