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'I should have been banned for life' - Nicky Henderson opens up to Alastair Down

A portrait of the champion trainer on the eve of his 70th birthday

Nicky Henderson at home at Seven Barrows. The champion trainer is celebrating his 70th birthday
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It is not known how long the Australian Federal Police operate their statute of limitations, whereby with the passing of the years you no longer get your collar felt and prosecuted for what are known as "high crimes and misdemeanours".

But Nicky Henderson attains his allotted span of three score years and ten on Thursday and, at the age of 70, he takes the view that a rap on the door from the New South Wales coppers is on the skinny side of unlikely.

Looking back some 50 years, he says: "It happened at the Bong Bong picnic races outside Sydney, which was first run in 1887 and which they take very seriously indeed. It's a cross between the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Heythrop point-to-point and all the races are over seven furlongs. I was 20, so there was a bit of playing at night in Sydney, but then I'd ride out eight at Randwick from four in the morning.

"There is a mound in the middle of the course where the stewards can't see what's going on and of course the local jockeys are lethal, particularly with a green Pom to terrify. Basically they see their job as trying to kill you. In the nicest possible way of course.

"Well, I finished mid-div and retired to the car-park for a few Fosters. Some time later there was an announcement asking, 'Will the following jockeys return to the weighing room' – including N Henderson. It turned out that the final race was a consolation event for horses who had run earlier in the day and it's fair to say I'd had a few beers by then.

"Not only did my horse look remarkably fresh, but he did not even begin to resemble the one I had ridden in the first. Same colour, yes, but this was a proper Sydney track horse and of course we bolted up – the first Pom to win at Bong Bong. I should have been banned for life but I think all the stewards are long gone so it's safe to tell the story. We had a very good night."

So the royal trainer with 62 Cheltenham Festival victories and a hatful of trainers' titles under his belt also has "rode ringer to land dodgy coup down under" on his illustrious CV. And as for being safe from the authorities, there are so many Aussies running the game over here nowadays, one of the Bong Bong stewards descendants may yet turn up at Seven Barrows to bring him in for questioning.

As a postscript to Henderson's Australian odyssey, his very great friend Barry Hills tells a nice tale out of school.

"On the way out there, Nicky stopped off in Bangkok," Hills reveals. "One evening a particularly beautiful girl knocked on his hotel room door and smilingly inquired if he would like her to clean his shoes. Fresh from the playing fields of Eton, Nicky smiled innocently and said his shoes were gleaming splendidly thank-you very much."

The moral of this story is abundantly clear – never, ever shine your shoes.

After Eton, Henderson was designated to join Cazenoves, by far the most blue-blooded of financial institutions where his father Johnny – "a man who understood money" and who guaranteed us Cheltenham as we know it today – was very much a senior wrangler.

Henderson says: "I used to sit there reading The Sporting Life with the outside pages of the Financial Times wrapped round to avoid detection. But with just my one A Level in French – I was sent to France to learn the language – I was never really cut out for it."

A young Nicky Henderson pictured in 1977 having survived Australia and escaped Cazenoves

In fairness, Nicky has a fine French vocabulary – "vin blanc", "vin rouge", "Auteuil", "camembert", "Brigitte Bardot" and "ou est le corkscrew?" are all second nature – but his mother tongue is jump racing and nobody in Britain has a grip of it to match his fluency.

And though knocking on 70, he has a gurkha's appetite for graft. He starts at six and the phone is still ringing at eight at night. His grasp of ratings, entries and future plans is that of the man who bought Windsor House all those years ago off Roger Charlton in the pub, the yard coming with an equine pool (not so uncommon now) and Corky Browne, who was simply unique as head man, a genius with legs and, as Nicky says, "a crucial part of my life for 40 years".

Corky Browne: the man who ran Nicky Henderson's powerhouse stable for 41 years

If you are looking for a catalogue of Henderson triumphs, then feel free to giggle, gaggle, goggle or google. You can find the A-Z from Altior to Zongalero (second in the National in his first season training) anywhere you want.

It is the flavour of the man that it falls to me to convey and, though he always talks down his intellect, in truth he is pin sharp. It is a racing brain enriched by the incalculable and bountiful harvest of donkey's years before the mast.

He admits that his passions are horses and people – and that in no particular order.

No-one has ever heard a bad word about him from his jockeys down the years, all of whom have been looked after in and out of the saddle. And wander round stables with him and the interplay between him and the lads and lasses is free and easy. Not an air, not a grace.

Champ stands in his box with what my old chum Gerald Delamere would describe "a skin like a pet mouse". His lad, Satyan Subramani, beams proudly, but Nicky's smile is born of the inner satisfaction that this is how a well-looked-after racehorse should look. Proud of the horse, of course, but even more chuffed with the job Satyan has done with him.

And you constantly have to remind yourself that Henderson's days pass quite literally in an increasing blur as his eyesight continues to fail with an inexorability that is a full-brother to relentless.

But if you are looking for a man with a 'poor me' T-shirt you are in the wrong place. Yes, he stands close enough to the TV to singe his nose, but the rampant appetite to see a torch-lit path for owners, horses and staff shines like one of those beacons we lit to get the message across Britain that the Armada was not merely declared overnight but had turned up for their day at the races.

Every evening he goes round half the horses doing 150 front legs –it is hands not eyes that tell that crucial tale. The next night those experienced paws run the gauntlet of trepidation down the forelegs of the other 75.

Always at his side is Charlie Morlock, who trained more than reasonably in his own right but, with his sound-as-a-pound outlook and quietly sardonic wit, is now Nicky's sharper pair of eyes – ever informing but never intruding. That is a balance of skills that has to be weighed carefully and with great skill he never crosses the line.
Having seen Morlock at work, I would say he was worth the weight in gold of Henderson's much-loved and staunch ally David Minton.

Talking tactics: Henderson and second-in-command Charlie Morlock plan the morning's riding arrangements

Of course Henderson's deteriorating sight clips his wings. He says: "I don't play golf anymore and grouse are a thing of the past, but I still enjoy shooting pheasant and partridge, though sometimes I can't tell whether it's a pheasant or a golden eagle. Preferably not the latter.

"But I can still fish and that remains a passion. It is all about being by the river and taking in every sight and sound around you. I caught my first salmon aged 12 up at Knockando and to me it has been paradise ever since."

So with Britain's most enviable string of horses – each one seemingly even more imposing on the eye than the last one – a tolerable sum of money in the bank, staff to whom he is genuinely devoted, daughters he adores and the world smiling benignly at him you might think he would begin to ease off the accelerator.

Don't hold your breath. As Barry Hills says: "He has a lot of energy –he can't sit still and I don't think he is the greatest sleeper, and I'd bet he's had more nightmares than hot dinners. But his dedication and will to win are extraordinary. You are no good at this game without success and, though he's had a lot of good moments, he's had some bloody bad ones.

"He went to a great school at Fred Winter's – Fred was a nice man but tough as boots and a nightmare first thing until late morning when he'd had a gin and tonic.

"I first met Nicky when I needed an amateur to ride at Kempton as my jockey had gone to Annabel's the night before and disappeared. Fred said, 'I've got a lad who doesn't ride too badly,' and we have been chums ever since.

"He rode a winner for me on Gold Cup day in 1976 when the race was postponed until April. I told him 'be last at the top of the hill' and luckily he did exactly that and managed to be in front at the line.

"Never doubt how hot his flame of ambition still burns – nor how beautifully his wife Sophie looks after him."

Sophie and Nicky were married two years ago in January on the banks of Loch Ericht with 50 guests and Corky Browne and Nicky's driver and general factotum Neil whizzing in and out with the results from Kempton, where he had five winners.

Nicky insists your correspondent was 51st on the guestlist, but Hills opines: "Don't believe a word of it – I've never met an Old Etonian who wasn't a genius at telling pork pies!"

But at the risk of getting starry-eyed, five winners does not win you the jackpot. You need six and Sophie was the winning ticket. It just works.

Henderson and his wife Sophie in the drawing room at Seven Barrows

So on a morning of glorious sunrise this week, the trainer, Morlock, Sophie and a passing hack found themselves at the top of Henderson's famous gallop in a condemned Land Rover Discovery with assorted dogs in tow. At the top of the hill are interred the ashes of the great racing writer, womaniser, vodka toper on a heroic scale and sometime Lambourn resident Jeffrey Bernard.

When Jeffrey lived locally he was, quite rightly, banned from driving, so he would post himself a letter every day and when the postman arrived at his cottage he would cadge a lift to the Queen's Head.

Henderson says: "Peter O'Toole, who played Jeffrey in the West End, came down and we buried Jeff's ashes with a packet of fags and a bottle of vodka. Looking back, it wouldn't have got him through a morning."

Looking out over miles of the Downs, you can see just one house on the far horizon – Sir Anthony McCoy's residence, which is fractionally larger than Windsor Castle. It is a scene of unalloyed beauty on a fine morning; hell on earth in January with horizontal sleet and a howling blast.

The horses amble back down the hill with Santini on the grass rather than the all-weather as, brick shelter of a horse though he may be, he has feet more delicate than a ballerina coming out of lockdown.

Alastair Down with the champion trainer in the garden at Seven Barrows

Back in the house, Henderson tackles three snorkers and a couple of slices of toast. It has been a quiet morning work-wise but out in the office super secretary Carolyn Harty is handling more calls than Battle of Britain HQ in 1940.

But there is an air of contentment about the place. A sense of ease despite the unremitting pressure.

On walking in I spotted a framed photo of winning festival horses waiting to take its place hanging on the crammed walls covered with images of donkey's years of success.

At first glance I read the caption as 'Cheltenham Festival winners 2021'. In total astonishment that they knew next March's results already, I whipped out my mobile to take a picture before ringing the bookies. Closer inspection revealed the words to read 2020.

It's hard to get an edge at this game but I bet the soon-to-be 70-year-old knows a couple of those March winners already. But it would be bad manners to ask.

The most homely house south of the Thames

Nicky Henderson's godfather was Field Marshall Montgomery, to whom Nicky's father Johnny was ADC.

Monty was a distinguished general but also a martinet and it is fair to say that Monty's Bumper Bedtime Fun Book was not a bestseller come Christmas.

Montgomery strongly disliked the American General George 'Blood n' Guts' Patton and wasn't enamoured of the Germans, with the possible exception of his great opponent Erwin Rommel. But he loathed most of all the dreaded habit of smoking, which he simply could not abide.

This may explain why Henderson does not smoke, but guests can sit on the fender by the fire and blow smoke up the chimney – a bit like the bike sheds at school but rather warmer.

This is typical of the relaxed regime at Seven Barrows, a house in which it is impossible to be other than happy.

When Henderson says, "I put myself under pressure but have been very lucky and led a wonderful life," that philosophy pulses through the house.

In The Lord of the Rings, the place where the heavy-duty elves hang out is called Rivendell, described by the mighty Tolkien as 'the last homely house east of the sea'.

Well, Seven Barrows is the most homely house south of the Thames. The place oozes unpretentious hospitality. It is not a must-visit venue for connoisseurs of Estonian Claret or Angolan Sauvignon, but those in need of a well-crafted libation from one of the better French vineyards are in very heaven. It is even possible to get carried away and have a second glass. Or goldfish bowl.

A home takes its atmosphere from those who create it and open their doors with true warmth of heart. Sitting shabbily by the fire with a stoop of Chablis, you wonder whether life can get much finer.

And every now and again Henderson will live up to his self-confessed reputation as not being the Shard among towering intellectuals.

With great enthusiasm, he informs me that he watched a marvellous film earlier in the week – in this case one of the most famous of all black and white British love stories set largely in a railway station and starring the great and electric pairing of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

"Well, what was it called, Nicky?"

With all the assurance of the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, he declaims: "Short Romance."

Close, Nicky, but it is better known to the rest of the world as Brief Encounter.

So forget a late change of career to being a film critic and stick to the day job. You have made a fair fist of it and enriched us all en route.

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I think all the stewards are long gone so it's safe to tell the story. We had a very good night

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Nicky Henderson
E.W. Terms