If he were a film star he’d be cast as the strong, silent type: as it is, he’s one of the country’s most respected and successful figures in National Hunt racing. I spent a morning in the wind and rain with trainer Nicky Henderson. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.
When you have 110 horses and 50 stable staff under your care sitting down is a luxury. Those entrusting racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson to deliver include HM Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JP McManus. Apt then, that Nicky is a bundle of energy, marching forward to greet me at his yard just outside Lambourn, striding off to his all-weather exercise ring and jumping into his Jeep to whizz up to a vantage point from where he can watch his wards, human and equine.
Seemingly impervious to the blustery weather, his blue eyes are inscrutable as he scrutinises his horses. He has rugged good looks but doesn’t seem bothered by appearance. His only adornment is a signet ring bearing his family crest. Hatless, he’s lightly dressed in unbuckled boots, a pair of blue canvas trousers and a waterproof jacket of the kind usually worn by hikers. But mere morals venturing to Seven Barrows in winter should wrap up more warmly – a vest, jumper, tweed jacket and a long waterproof, windproof coat prove just about adequate and within seconds of meeting Nicky I’m mud-spattered despite wearing wellies. This has been one of the wettest winters on record and the weather is causing Nicky, and his owners, enormous disappointment – pools of water lie everywhere and Nicky dubs his all-weather exercise ring ‘the best building we’ve got’.
The gallops at Seven Barrows are fine, but the nation’s racecourses are struggling to put on meetings. When you have favourites peaking for races and owners itching to see their asset placed, cancellations are exasperating.
Seven Barrows straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and is dotted with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows From the hilltops on the gallops the only house to be seen for miles is Nicky’s own. The house and yard were built in the mid-1800s and the soil hasn’t been tilled since. At least part of the everyday pleasure of Nicky’s job lies in being outdoors and he’s proud to be the guardian of this landscape.
Though Nicky’s expensive Eton education wasn’t intended to equip him for a successful career in horse training he says with a wry smile: “We all knew where the bookies were.”
He trod a more conventional path initially, following in his father’s footsteps to become a stockbroker. Two years on, having told his father he hated his job, he started riding as a professional jockey – not such a leap as it appears – he’d been an amateur before. His father, Johnny Henderson, was an extraordinary man, whose vision and drive kept Cheltenham Racecourse from being sold for property development. He had been an amateur jockey himself, was a racehorse owners and breeder and he supported his son’s decision.
“He was very good. I was expected to do the other job, but I didn’t want to sit in the City all my life,” says Nicky.
Johnny Henderson saw his son ride 75 winners and become an assistant trainer under the tutelage of the late Fred Winter before making a name for himself as a top trainer in his own right.
“I have three daughters, [Sarah, Tessa and Camilla], I don’t think any of them wants to get into training, though you do get women trainers. If they did, I’d help them,” says Nicky.
Though the youngest rides out for him when she’s home, Nicky has plenty of stable boys and girls working for him. They address Nicky as ‘Guv’nor’ and the rapport between them implies not only great respect, but also warm affection. No barking of orders, he exchanges very few words during his observations, but he knows exactly how each horse is riding. In horseracing circles Nicky is recognised as a bit of a softy, resisting the pressure to send his horses out unless they’re in tip-top condition.
“I can be criticised for it, but when my horses run, they are fit… there’s not a lot of point firing them at the wrong races in the wrong circumstances,” he says.
“Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses”
He later revisits the subject.
“We do have the best owners, which is quite important,” he says and looks embarrassed when I suggest such owners appreciate his handling of their valuable horses or they would go elsewhere for success. “They are the most understanding and the nicest. Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses,” he says.
There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear.
Nicky’s been on the go since 6am, but he hasn’t had breakfast and won’t be having lunch. A single cup of coffee will sustain him through the day.
“I’ve never thought of it before,” he replies when I ask him how he manages to expend so much energy on so little food. There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear. Instead, Nicky hits the phone, resting in a chair for a microsecond, then jumping up and walking around as he talks to a hospitalised jockey, an owner and his assistant trainer. Then he’s discussing nutrition with vet Buffy Shirley-Bevan, trying to find the perfect balance of nutrition for an off-colour horse.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight. You have to make hundreds of decision every day – it’s inevitable there are going to be wrong ones, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.
His office features wall-to-wall photographs of times that went right – horses in winners’ enclosures with their proud owners; horses clearing perfectly Becher’s Brook in the Grand National; bronzes of horses and a wide-screen television for watching race meetings. In Nicky’ words, horse racing is about hours of agony for a moment of glory. Like Olympic athletes, racehorses are highly tuned and their systems work at the extremes of their physical capabilities.
“One of my biggest frustrations is injury,” says Nicky as he’s called out of the office to examine a horse with a cut on its leg that’s not improving.
“I’m no good at doing nothing”
So what does Nicky do to relax?
“We do go on holiday. I go to buy horses in France – that will be our main objective this year. The last 10 years it’s been the place to buy,” he says.
“I didn’t learn much at school but I learnt enough French to be able to have conversations with a French trainer and I got a maths ‘O’ level which keeps me in the office for an hour or so,” he says, cracking a rare smile.
“I do go to Scotland – I’m not good in hot weather and I’m no good at doing nothing. I can’t sit on beaches,” he says.
He used to ride his own horse but says, practically: “It takes up a box and you have to keep it. It doesn’t make sense to have a box with a Dobbin in it.”
Nicky likes fishing and shooting (although the season clashes with National Hunt racing) and has been known to hit the odd round of golf. He enjoys eating out, but the pleasure comes from the company, not from the food. His passion and his life-blood are in the training.
“Everybody who does it is mad. We all stick together. It’s good fun around here,” he says, adding that without the fun there would be no point doing it.
Can Nicky see himself continuing until he’s too infirm to stand outside in all weathers or will be able, one day, to retire and relax?
“I haven’t thought about it. It depends how long I last. You last as long as anybody wants you to keep going. If things go badly for a couple of years people soon forget you,” he says. (Nicky needn’t worry, a quick check of the next day’s results shows that he had two winners at Ascot.)
“You only give this sort of thing up when you’re too decrepit to do it,” he says.
“I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards”
We go outside again and clamber into the battered old Jeep; it’s filthy inside and houses a diary, notebook, two pairs of binoculars and a pair of warm gloves that Nicky shows no sign of putting on. We’re heading back up the hill to watch the final runs of the day. “I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards,” he says, surveying the landscape.
Such stark beauty could move the most dispassionate man and as another of his horses thunders past, tail flowing, sinews straining and nostrils flaring, Nicky tells me it cost £75,000 as a six-month-old and is due a win. His face is alight with the thrill of watching it gallop.
The gods can spit fire and spout rain up here, but it’s clear that Nicky Henderson is in his element. At one with nature, the closest he can get to heaven on earth – and that’s without the winning, or maybe, it’s part of the reason for it.
[Written for Oxfordshire Life magazine to highlight Lambourn Open Day on March 21 2008. It’s a unique opportunity for members of the public to see the racehorses and meet the trainers.]