Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Nicky Henderson



Nicky Henderson: “It's getting a bit ridiculous, really.”

Nicholas John ‘Nicky’ Henderson is the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival with 51 victories, including the Champion Hurdle (three times), the World Hurdle (twice) and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having ridden 75 winners as an amateur jockey, Henderson began his training career as assistant to the legendary Fred Winter at Uplands, Lambourn in 1974, before taking out a training licence at nearby Windsor House four years later.

Henderson recorded his first win at the Cheltenham Festival in 1985, when the fragile See You Then powered clear on the run-in to win the Champion Hurdle. See You Then was to win the Champion Hurdle again in 1986, and in 1987, joining Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken and Persian War as the fourth horse to win the race three years running. Following a move to Seven Barrows, just north of Lambourn, in 1992, Henderson has continued to churn out Cheltenham Festival winners year after year.

Now 63, he has won all eleven of the Grade 1 races staged over the four days and has won the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award no fewer than nine times. On the second day of the Cheltenham Festival in 2012 he saddled four winners, Finian’s Rainbow in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Simonsig in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase and Une Artiste in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle at cumulative odds of 3,381/1. A record seven winners, in total, that year took him clear of another National Hunt legend, Fulke Winner, as the most successful trainer of all time at the Cheltenham Festival.

The following year, he sent out another four Cheltenham Festival winners and, although just denied by Willie Mullins in his quest for his tenth Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award, he had the satisfaction of becoming the first trainer to saddle 50 winners at the Festival, courtesy of Bobs Worth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Prior to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, Henderson acknowledged that his team was weakened by the absence of Sprinter Sacre, whom he described as ‘missing 10%’ after being pulled up at Kempton over Christmas amid fears of an irregular heartbeat, Simonsig, out for the season after developing a splint on his near fore, and Long Run, who ran in the Grand National instead. Nevertheless, he still saddled a total of fifteen runners who came home in the first six, including Whisper, the winner of the hugely competitive Coral Cup on the second day.

Former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Long Run may not be quite the force of old but, no doubt Nicky Henderson will be doing everything in his power to make sure that Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig are 100% for their return next season. Established stars, such as Bobs Worth, My Tent Or Yours and Whisper, to name but a few, should ensure that Henderson remains a force to be reckoned with at the Cheltenham Festival but, as ever, he’s unlikely to rush them or any of his other horses. His patient training methods mean that many of his charges peak late in the season, in March or April, which is definitely a contributory factor in his success at the Cheltenham Festival.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2019


Two of the showpiece events, the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, proved anti-climactic, at least as far as the market leaders were concerned, but the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 still produced four days of exhilarating racing. Indeed, Espoir D’Allen may have been sent off at 16/1 against the likes of Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina in the Champion Hurdle, but recorded an authoritative, 15-length win and looked every inch a top-class hurdler. He was one of five winners during the week for leading owner John P. McManus.

Similarly, in the ‘Blue Riband’ event, Al Boum Photo was only third choice of four entries from Willie Mullins’ Co. Carlow stable, but the seven-year-old fared by far the best of the quartet, travelling sweetly under jockey Paul Townend and staying on strongly from the final fence to beat Anibale Fly by 2½ lengths. The 12/1 chance was a first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for Mullins, who had saddled the runner-up on six previous occasions and later admitted that he had ‘probably resigned’ himself to never winning the race.

Elsewhere, it was ‘business as usual’ for Altior, who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase for the second year running and, in so doing, equalled the record of 18 consecutive victories. That said, on officially ‘soft’ going, the 4/11 chance had to work a little harder than usual under Nico De Boinville – leading jockey of the week with four winners – knuckling down well in the closing stages to beat Politologue by 1¾ lengths after being narrowly headed at the final fence. The remaining ‘championship’ race, the Stayers’ Hurdle, fell to a new champion, Paisley Park, who justified favouritism to cap a brilliant, unbeaten season for trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell.

Other headline-makers at Prestbury Park included Frodon and Bryony Frost, who became the first female jockey to record a Grade One victory at the Cheltenham Festival when partnering Paul Nicholls’ seven-year-old to a game, 1¼-length win in the Ryanair Chase. Bryony Frost was joined in the winners’ enclosure by Rachael Blackmore (twice) and Lizzie Kelly, as female jockeys collectively recorded four wins at the Festival for the second year running.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Arkle: The Stuff of Which Legends are Made

For younger readers, or those unfamiliar with the history of National Hunt, Arkle is arguably the best steeplechaser of all time. I say arguably because his Timeform rating of 212, which has become the yardstick for every other steeplechaser since the mid-1960s, was achieved at a time when Timeform ratings for National Hunt horses were in their infancy and is considered, by some, an anomaly.

To put things in perspective, his stable companion Flyingbolt achieved a Timeform rating of 210 and the pair is fully 20lb ahead of their nearest rival in the all-time list. Now, given that hundreds of thousands of steeplechasers have raced in the last 50 years, it’s effectively impossible, statistically, the best two, ever, came from the same yard at the same time. The most exciting steeplechaser of recent times, Sprinter Sacre, is in third place with Timeform rating of 192p but, even if he can be coaxed back to his best form, he still has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Arkle.

The yard in question was that of County Dublin trainer Tom Dreaper and, whether or not you choose to believe the Timeform figures, Arkle was undoubtedly an exceptional steeplechaser who fully deserves his place in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, and named after a Scottish mountain, Arkle won what is now the RSA Chase on his first appearance at the Festival in 1962, but is principally remembered for a hat-trick of wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1996.

On the first occasion, in 1964, he took revenge on Mill House, who had beaten him, on 5lb worse terms, in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November, winning by 5 lengths. He beat the same horse by 20 lengths in the 1965 Cheltenham Gold Cup and in the 1966 renewal, in the absence of his old rival, beat Dormant by 30 lengths. His achievements are commemorated by the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two-mile novices’ chase run on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and a half-size bronze statue at Prestbury Park. His skeleton holds pride of place in the museum of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare.

Despite originally be bought for 1,150 guineas, Arkle won 22 of his 26 steeplechases, including the King George VI Chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup (twice), the Irish Grand National and, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times. Known in racing circles simply as ‘Himself’, a fractured pedal bone forced Arkle into retirement in 1968 and he was put down three years later after suffering from chronic arthritis.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

A Blast From the Past!

queen mother at the races

Horse racing stalwarts Queen Mother and the Queen in the paddock at The Cheltenham Festival way back in 1957!

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019

The much anticipated 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup (aka the Magners Gold Cup) was the 91st running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup race,  held each year at  the Cheltenham Racecourse, in Gloucestershire, England. The race took place on 15th March 2019 as part of the wider four day Cheltenham Festival and featured 16 runners. The going on the course was good to soft.

Al Boum Photo, ridden by Paul Townend and trained by Willie Mullins won the race (and the £350,000+ prize money), much to the delight of the trainer. The race was won in a time of 6m 39.06s.

It had almost become something of a running joke that Willie Mullins had won everything worth winning over this three decade National Hunt career, aside from the Gold Cup. From the Grand National (Hedgehunter) to achieving more Cheltenham Festival wins than anyone else, he'd done and won it all. As far as the Gold Cup was concerned though, it was a case of 'better luck next time' as he had previously been runner up in the event an astounding six times in total. As they say though, good things come to those who wait, and this long awaited win is certainly the cherry on the cake for the Irishman.

"I had probably resigned myself to the fact I would not win the Gold Cup" said Mullins after the race. How sweet this victory must have been.

The win was also a stark change of fortunes for jockey Paul Townend, who the previous year had received a 21-day ban for dangerous riding after crashing through the barrier at the Punchestown Festival in April 2018. It was a costly and yet uncharacteristic lapse of concentration, that clearly didn't sway Mullins from making him the man for the job here.  Bad luck had also whirled around winning horse Al Boum Photo, as Ruby Walsh had broken his leg on the horse during the previous Cheltenham Festival. Nevertheless all of this bad luck ebbed away during the 2019 Gold Cup, to bring about an impressive and memorable victory.

Seven year old Al Boum Photo won at odds of 12-1, after taking the lead with two fences to go. His closest challenger had been the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly at 22-1, with  Bristol De Mai finishing third at 18-1. Native River placed fourth.