Tony Stafford in his Telegaph days...

Sunday Supplement: Bigfoot and the Hendersons

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

Did you remember to first foot on New Year’s Day? The idea, in Scotland and probably in the North of England – I’ll have to remember to ask Wilf Storey – is to aim to be the first person to cross a neighbour’s threshold on the first of the year.

Coincidentally, I was in Scotland on Jan 1 2015, and certainly was first across the threshold of the bus that took me from the airport into the centre of town off the first flight into Edinburgh from London, with the rain sheeting down outside. Dreek - rainy and windy – it stayed all day and the horse ran pretty ordinarily too.

I went nowhere this New Year, probably a good thing as 32,000 people crammed into Cheltenham, where they were still arriving as the third race was being run. People at Sandown were regaling everyone with tales of pride telling how they had beaten the elements and the lack of public transport to secure their places in the proper car park, avoiding the ignominy of having to leave the vehicle at the bottom of the hill.

Maybe I was the first to foot the Ashmore’s door in St John’s Wood. I took the opportunity to hot-foot it across their threshold to use the ground floor toilet, but without the customary goodies expected of a Scottish neighbour at the time of year.

The first-footer needs preferably to be a dark male. Well, if you saw the picture (circa 1987) that occasionally accompanies this piece, you could call me “dark” and hopefully “male”. Unfortunately, the point of this tradition is that the first-footer should bring the first-footee financial prosperity, food, warmth and good cheer.

The customary minimum requirement is a symbolic piece of coal, shortbread, a black bun and a wee dram of whisky.

I mentioned none of this to my passengers as we set off. My friend Peter has a number of “interesting” characteristics that make him the perfect role model for any remake of the Secret World of Walter Mitty. Yesterday’s Mitticism was to put himself forward to be the new face of ITV Racing when the musical chairs of terrestrial racing coverage spins onto channel 103 next New Year.

He even wanted to first foot it into the Channel Four log cabin at Sandown to assess the possible opposition. Similarly and more feasibly, Matt Chapman might fancy his chances of putting his big foot in the door, but knowing ITV, it’ll probably be Ant and Dec, who quite like racing, Keith Lemon or Jeremy Kyle.

As he pondered his future career as a broadcaster – not much happening on the valuation and surveying front – he happened across a fellow punter as he surveyed the runners going around the paddock for the first race.

“You need a horse with big feet to cope with the ground today”, the fellow said. Not just today. Warren Greatrex had called me earlier to say that April Dusk wouldn’t be going up to Wetherby  as planned and that was quite a blow as (1) the ground would have been lovely and (2) Steve Gilbey has already booked and paid for a hotel for his family to travel to see the race. Warren added that we’re getting this weather for the next ten days.

Steve’s reply to my text – “that’s my luck” – naturally gravitated to the time when he had a half share with Raymond in a really nice horse, Know the Law, sourced originally by David Elsworth for a cool 105,000gns, quite a chunk for Steve if not so much for his co-owner.

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He did eventually win a race for Elsie, an all-weather affair at Lingfield when no one went and nobody backed him, but then moved across to Mr Henderson. He won twice at Lucky Huntingdon, each time with Steve, brother Spud and spouses in attendance and we thought he was going on to better things.

Then when looking like he was coming to win a race at Newbury he came down, leaving his rider Richie Killoran in tears. He ran a couple of nice races at Kempton after that, but having apparently finished lame and pulling up at Ludlow in late February, we were all quite surprised to learn he would be turning out at the Cheltenham  Festival.

His chosen race was the Charity Flat race and selected jockey was Nicky’s daughter Camilla, having her first ride in public. Five years later Camilla was to win a similar event at Goodwood in controversial fashion where a joke start ruled out half the field, leaving those who bolted at the outset to have it to themselves.

There was no such happy story at Cheltenham, and after Know the Law trailed home, there was just the odd entry for Punchestown, Nicky’s annual spring livener, before time was called on a nice horse, much to Steve’s dismay. Jockey George Baker and girlfriend Nicky took charge of him, but his injury toll was too great for them to be able to do much with him.

So, back to Sandown, and there we were, Peter and me, trying to detect bigness of horses’ feet. I don’t know about you, but unless the groom can stop the horse, the feet all look the same size. Indeed the best time to ask about it is after the race! Not much use.

Human big feet were in attendance, notably clerk of the course Andrew Cooper, well at least his wellingtons were big enough, as were certainly those intriguingly brought into the Owners’ Room by West Country-based Jeremy Scott, but then he’s a big lad all round. There too, with a large entourage including a little chap who was energetically passed around among the company, was former Henderson assistant, Ben Pauling.

Ben’s great start to his own career has come despite initial extra scrutiny presumably as a result of the 2009 inquiry into Hendo’s indiscretion with non-permitted substances, which also hampered fellow assistant Tom Symonds in his early days with a licence.

Symonds and Pauling were in opposing camps in the 2009 Champion Hurdle, just a few short weeks before that unpleasantness, Tom being with Ray’s Punjabi, with Ben on side with Hendo and Corky Brown for Binocular. Well as history relates, a beaming Tom led in Punjabi as a crestfallen Henderson took a while first to get over third-placed Binocular’s defeat and then the fact he’d actually won with his other horse. Still makes me smile as do the recollections of the times when in the paddock with a Tooth-Henderson horse, the trainer would habitually turn his back. Short attention-span?

I’ve no idea if Polly Peachum has big feet, but she clearly shows a big heart and did so to win the Listed mares’ race, in the process seeing off a couple of Willie Mullins travellers. But I did notice that Nicky’s partner Sophie Waddilove had one big foot, the right one, which had one of those large hospital-type protective jobbies on it.

Peter, ever the sympathetic, suggested it might be for gout, but I quickly moved to quell that rumour. Sophie must have injured it while arranging the flowers. But it did take me back, coincidentally to 1987 when “Bigfoot and the Hendersons” adorned our TV screens as a spin-off series from the successful Steven Spielberg movie “Harry and the Hendersons”.

Bigfoot of course was a Spielberg slant on the Abominable Snowman story, and was played in the film by a 7ft2in tall actor. By 1987, Henderson was already an established major big-race trainer, and little has changed in the past 29 years, except maybe for the lack of snow. His recent haul of seven wins since Christmas, suggests he and his stable are not lying down, even if the spectre of a little gout might always be out there - like Bigfoot.

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