Not much happened on another of those weeks which comprise the Phoney War between Christmas and You Know What, writes Tony Stafford. Apart that is from the septuagenarian trainer who recorded his 274th, 275th, 276th and 277th wins around Kempton’s jumping course since the Racing Post rather irresponsibly delayed its first issue in 1988 until after See You Then had already won his three Champion Hurdles from 1985-7.
That’s right. Nicholas Henderson LVO OBE, now 71 and newly recovered from Covid, would hardly have been in the best of form on Saturday morning. The fog had enveloped that much-beloved, dead flat slice of Sunbury-on-Thames from early morning and with the temperature being unhelpfully slow to rise, prospects for the meeting looked slim.
Two morning inspections came and went and I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been principally for the fact that Kempton’s greatest supporter both in terms of runners and with regard to its welfare, had a hatful ready to go, Barney Clifford might not have given it a final late-morning look.
It had been like that, too, earlier on Hendo’s private Lambourn gallop at just after dawn but there the fog never lifted and the stars having their top-ups with big targets imminent managed to get from A to B with only their riders having a clue of what went on. A fit-again trainer did, though, make it to Kempton.
And meanwhile, Barney did wait and magically the fog lifted rather fortuitously as the river can almost be heard gliding alongside the old but now-disused Jubilee course on its way to Hampton Court and thence the sea. Barney’s job done, it was left to Henderson, having already in the morning confirmed Shishkin for the Clarence House Chase next weekend – maybe Willie Mullins and Energumene might be the ones to blink and pass up the pre-Festival date with two-mile destiny – to fill his boots.
It was at Kempton over Christmas that Shishkin did his demolition job on Tingle Creek scorer, Greaneteen. On Saturday a quartet of winners at 7-1 (Falco Blitz), 15-8 (Mister Fisher) 9-2 Caribean Boy, and 11/2 First Street, equated to an 821-1 four-timer. If instead of finishing second at 22/1 in the finale and beating First Street, the four-timer involving Mengli Khan would have been 2908-1.
In addition Call Me Lord was third at 33-1 in the featured Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle, unbelievably well into its 40’s honouring the memory of the great Fred Winter-trained champion. Henderson spent his time as assistant and also stable amateur with Fred and ever since his training career has been conducted mainly on the top courses in the Southern part of the country, albeit with some diversions to such as Aintree, Doncaster and Haydock. It was good to see perennially under-rated Jack Quinlan get a chance in a big race and he took it with both hands on Ben Case’s runaway Lanzarote winner, Cobblers Dream.
This week, again with little to talk about, I thought I’d have a brief look at elements of the Henderson career and found one rather nice oddity. In the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, being taught elocution as she attemps to turn herself from a Covent Garden flower girl to a lady fit for society, has to enunciate : ”In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen”, managing in true Cockney fashion to drop all the h’s. No such problem for ‘enderson!
There are no jumps racecourses in Hertford or Hampshire, but Nicky has his share of wins at Hereford. To draw out a rather unnecessary segment of his career totals, at three alphabetically consecutive northern tracks, which fit the tempo of that far-off line, we can say “To Carlisle, Cartmel and Catterick, Henderson hardly travels.” With respectively two from four, one from three and three from 11, his horses have been to each of them far fewer times than me!
Hoping that my arithmetic has not been too inaccurate, I believe Henderson has won around £47 million in stakes from his 3017 jumps winners in the post-1988 period of his momentous career. I had some great times from close up in the prime of life of Ray Tooth’s Punjabi, notably the four trips to Punchestown which, while bringing two Grade 1 wins, denied him a shot at any Chester Cup, a race I always believed would have suited him. When he won his Champion Hurdle I was home alone on the sofa recovering from a detached retina.
Newbury comes next numerically in the roll call of Henderson victories but it is with some surprise that while his 267 tally at his local track is only ten short of Kempton, his prize-money haul is a clear £1 million less, £3.4million to Kempton’s almost £4.5 million.
Prestbury Park has been only third in the winner count with 209 victories, but the financial return has been a massive £12.2 million. Aintree, Sandown and Ascot have all also been wonderful venues for this classiest of operations.
Over the years the constant characteristic, especially among the two-miler chasers, has been just how sleek and classy they all have looked. Even non-expert paddock watchers have a decent shot at recognising a Henderson horse without the aid of his distinctive sheet.
With the largely good-ground team firmly in form, and with the weather unseasonably dry for the time of year, hopes must be high for the Festival. Shishkin and last week’s brilliant Sandown Tolworth Hurdle hero Constitution Hill look two of the more obvious potential home winners.
I’ve had a number of Moaning Minnie shots at the handicappers throughout the last few months. Last week, though, talking to Nicky Richards he felt the new approach of giving more lenient initial marks to novice winners could help increase the number of horses running on their merits in those races.
I hate to think what the Irish officials make of the big-field novice events over there where five or six (at a stretch) with a chance are already detached from the rest of the field by a wide margin before the second flight. The second much larger group then has a private battle to fight out fifth or sixth place.
Where would you begin if you were a handicapper in those circumstances? Equally why should trainers of those inferior animals get into an early tussle with Messrs Mullins, De Bromhead and Elliott and have a hard race for no potential benefit… rather get an 85 rating and come to England, off 95 as it now is, and where the finishing straights are paved with gold!
Insurance companies have been good supporters of races at various big UK meetings of late and the Jonathan Palmer-Brown influence was felt with successive sponsorships of the race with the registered BHA title of the Golden Miller Chase, remembering the five-time Gold Cup hero of the inter-war period.
Palmer-Brown, a successful flat-race owner with the Hannons, through his company JLT, supported the two and a half mile novice chase which opens day three. Then a few years ago when JLT was being absorbed in the Marsh McLennan Agency in a deal brokered among others with Marsh’s Dominic Burke, Palmer-Brown – with the Festival’s well-being in mind – negotiated a continued initial period of support under the Marsh banner.
Burke, Chairman of Newbury racecourse, has been in the news lately. Last week he was a partner with Tim Syder in two winners. Firstly, Dr T J Eckleburg, trained by Olly Murphy, won a novice hurdle at Ludlow; and then on Saturday the Emma Lavelle-trained Éclair Surf was the wide-margin winner of Warwick’s valuable long-distance Classic Chase for the pair. This year the Marsh name has disappeared from Thursday’s opening race title and the contest will be henceforth known as the Turners Chase.
Whether Marsh McLennan’s US principals deemed the Marsh Chase brought little publicity benefit in terms of value for money or not, they might well have been advised that it could have been a different story this year. The Turners – nice ring to it, don’t you think? - is the chosen target for Bob Olinger, who won well at Punchestown yesterday. In so doing he was maintaining an unbeaten chase record in his two starts since strolling home clear in his novice hurdle test last March.
He is a very hot favourite for that race and trainer Henry De Bromhead will be basing his team around him, along with Honeysuckle on the Tuesday in her repeat Champion Hurdle challenge and Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, last year’s Gold Cup one-two. Can’t wait, and also can’t believe I got through 1,400 words without using ‘the C word’! [No, not that one! Ed.]