Nicky Henderson on getting into training racehorses, the Valley of the Racehorse and the prospect of retirement
PUBLISHED: 15:56 21 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:56 21 May 2018
Claire Pitcher takes a tour of the Valley of the Racehorse, starting at Seven Barrows with trainer Nicky Henderson
Nestling on Berkshire’s borders with Oxon and Wiltshire, the Valley of the Racehorse is famed for its top class training stables. You may still be surprised to learn that it has a higher ratio of horses to people than anywhere else in England.
This beautiful part of the county is also home to one of the most famous trainers in horse racing – Nicky Henderson of seven Barrows.
Having trained such familiar names as long Run, Caracciola, Bobs Worth and Might Bite, over his career, Nicky has had more than 2,000 winning horses.
The champion trainer even made the New Year’s Honours list this year – a personal gift from the Queen awarded to those who have served the monarchy. The now ‘Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order’ trained the Queen Mother’s horses and then the Queen’s for a number of years. “But it was still a surprise to receive such an honour,” admits Nicky. “All of her horses are home bred, I consider myself very lucky to have been of service.”
The Berkshire-born, Eton educated trainer has been in the business since 1978, eventually following in the footsteps of his father, Johnny Henderson. Johnny was himself famous in the world of horse racing, being one of the founders of the Racecourse Holdings trust (now known as the Jockey Club Racecourses), which owns Aintree and Cheltenham Racecourse, among others. He also had a race named after him at the Cheltenham Festival: the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase.
Surprisingly however, training racehorses wasn’t Nicky’s number one career choice after finishing college: “Oh, it wasn’t intentional. Riding yes, I’d always done that. I was meant to go into the city to become a stockbroker but after trying it for a short time I realised I really wasn’t cut out to sit behind a desk.”
So after a two-year career in the capital, he started riding as a professional jockey – not too big a jump as he had already had a stint as an amateur rider. After 75 wins as a jockey himself he eventually decided to get off the horse, spending time as an assistant to famous trainer Fred Winter before opening his own training yard exactly 40 years ago this year.
The white washed stables and buildings of Seven Barrows were built in the mid-1800s and house around 100 horses, looked after by 50 or so stable staff. Surrounded by Neolithic and Bronze Age Barrows, the landscape is of special importance. From high up on the Seven Barrows gallops the fields of the North Wessex Downs stretch for miles. In the winter, this landscape is unforgiving, but work at Seven Barrows continues whatever the weather: “You’re not involved with training race horses for the glamour,” says Nicky. “Our great British weather can’t hamper the day to day running of the stables and exercising the horses.”
Nicky has three daughters, Camilla, Tessa and Sarah, and although the youngest (Camilla) enjoys riding out, she’s never wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps to take up training.
In 2016 at the Cazenove Capital Point-to-Point and Country Day at Lockinge, Camilla found herself in a tussle with cousin Freddie Henderson in the final stages of the first race. She held on for a five length win on Medieval Chapel, the horse’s first point-to-point victory.
It would be difficult to replicate Nicky’s success. He is no doubt the country’s most successful trainer at Cheltenham, with over 50 winners to date. so what’s the secret of becoming a champion trainer? “It’s all about the people you have around you. All the great people at Seven Barrows have their part to play and are extremely loyal. We couldn’t have had the successes we have without them.”
It is however, hard work. There’s no let up for anyone at Seven Barrows, especially in the run up to Cheltenham Festival every March: “There’s really no such thing as a typical day,” Nicky explains. “I can be on the go from as early as 6am down at the stables, but then have meetings in the afternoon and there’s always what seems like hundreds of phone calls to answer and queries to deal with. This life is seven-days a week – there’s no time to stop.”
At 68 years of age, the majority of us would be retired by now, or at least winding down, but Nicky brushes this idea aside immediately: “Oh no, why would I want to do that? I’ll just keep going until I can’t any longer.” Surely he must hang up the reins and relax at some point? “I don’t often go on holiday, I’m not one for lying on a beach.”
He does admit to playing golf, as well as shooting and fishing as long as it doesn’t clash with racing, that is. If you ever get to meet Nicky, you will see that his real passion is without doubt training: “That, and spending time with the people here at Seven Barrows and in the Valley of the Racehorse generally. This part of Berkshire is a wonderful place to live. It’s great fun to spend time with other trainers and stables – we’re one big community – we simply couldn’t be without each other.”
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