We know the “where”, we understand the “why” but the elusive mystery of Nicky Henderson’s ascendancy at the Cheltenham Festival is the “how”. That’s the reason it was good to be bumping along in the trainer’s jeep as he directed a whole regiment of shivering riders and steaming horses from out of the driver’s window. For there had to be calculation amidst the chaos.

Or you hoped there would be. It’s hard to judge in the fog of a freezing cold January morning as the 40 strong “first lot” filed back down through the 6 furlong uphill “Polytrack” gallop which is the basic workbench on which Henderson hones his horses. “You take her with him,” he shouts at one rider. “That’s too free in front, put him in behind those other two,” he calls to the next. The pack is being shuffled on the hoof. In the past Henderson has taken more Cheltenham tricks than any of his rivals but this year his hand looks stronger than ever.

Back up on the top of the hill all we can see is a series of horses emerging out of the gloom, necks stretched, noses snorting steam into the freezing air, limbs driving hard against the collar, set-faced riders poised above the mane. “That’s Carole’s Legacy,” says Henderson, “lovely mare. That’s Giorgius Quercus, he’s getting it together, might go for the Arkle…….”  On and on it goes, a sort of galloping Pelmanism as the trainer identifies his charges and we watchers do those silly nods that indicate you think you know what’s happening when you don’t.

What we do know is that beneath the outer crust of county voiced bluster this now slightly florid faced 60 year old has mastered the craft of getting horses racing ready for Cheltenham better than any man alive. From his first Festival victory, with See You Then in the 1985 Champion Hurdle, Henderson has 8 times been leading trainer of the meeting and his 37 victories at the annual Cotswold showdown are rapidly closing on the 40 logged by the late great Fulke Walwyn from 1946 to 1986. What’s more he goes into this year’s Festival with the strongest team ever, housing at the time of our visit the favourite for four of the biggest races including Binocular defending his Champion Hurdle crown, while the brilliant King George VI winner Long Run is much fancied to dethrone Imperial Commander in the Gold Cup, the one great Cheltenham prize the Henderson stable has never won.

That first early morning exercise is repeated, once again the snorting phantoms rising out of the fog, the trainer reciting the names and we watchers pondering the thought that if these horses are not yet at their Cheltenham peak opposing stables are going to be set a problem. For 40 winners in January was a monthly record for the stable, on the 8th February they notched up their fastest seasonal century and later that month the overall tally was to pass the 2,000 mark. “It’s great when things are going well,” says Henderson jovially, “they can go wrong quick enough. But the aim is always Cheltenham, that’s why we don’t run much until November and I think most of these have a bit of improvement in them yet.”

Yes but how? “Well I think it is important not to overcook them,” adds Nicky, “we don’t start the season as early as the others and we try to have them fresh when they come to the Festival. But it doesn’t always work, four and five years ago we didn’t have a single winner. It’s not one thing, and it’s certainly not one man. What we need is the whole team working together – and people like Tom and “Corky.”

The twin pillars on which Henderson’s stable most depends currently are a pair as contrasting as their lengths of service. Tom Symonds, the bright, lanky, 25 year old assistant has been at the little private world that is Seven Barrows for the last five years; 68 year old  Head Lad Albert “Corky” Browne has been at Henderson’s side since the Old Etonian, amateur jockey, banker’s son set up on his own in nearby Lambourn 32 seasons ago. “We do our best,” says Corky in gruff understatement, “and this man is always thinking of Cheltenham. But you do need the right horses and at the moment we have got the strongest bunch we have ever had.”

Tom Symonds thinks this is no coincidence. “Nicky is incredibly good with the owners”, he says. “He is always happy to go shooting, play golf or have dinner with them and tell them about their horses. They all want to have a ‘Cheltenham horse’, they are prepared to pay for it but they want to feel it is in good hands but also to enjoy being told how it is getting on.”

A few weeks ago one amazed observer listened to Henderson successively regaling five different owners with individual highlights of their horses – it turned out that each of them was staying at the same fabled millionaires’ playground that is Sandy Lane in Barbados. As many a football club knows the path to success needs more than just the cash to buy players and when we go out on to the gallops for the second time the sun has broken through and the method becomes a bit more obvious.

Once again the string take the long swinging pull up to the Beech clump, once more the trainer’s jeep comes alongside  as they walk down and he switches one pair with another before dealing them back up the hill. At one point he even has one in almost physical tow which he takes past half a dozen different horses before he can find the right pairing. It is all done with a mind-stretching intensity which is sharpened along with his temper during his annual month of abstinence prior to Cheltenham.

“I do have lists of what we plan to work,” Nicky explains, “but I think you need to react to what you see. You need to give yourself room for manoeuvre.” The accent may be a little plumby but the experience is deep. Nicky’s 78 winner career as a rider included a winner over the Aintree fences on a horse whose saddle had slipped back almost over the tail and for all his jocular self disparagement – “we’ll probably make a right balls of it,” is a favourite phrase – there is never any question that even in his seventh decade the four most important days of his year are those at the Cheltenham Festival.

So there’s a palpable mixture of pleasure and pressure about him as he looks at his two biggest stars before they go out for third lot: Champion Hurdler Binocular and Gold Cup candidate Long Run. What’s more the contrast in the two horses gives a further insight to the trainer’s expertise. Long Run, tall, lean and livewire is to have an easy morning as part of his wind down before readying for the Gold Cup; Binocular, shorter and sturdier will need another race before defending his crown.

“It’s like in the kitchen,” says Henderson returning to his favourite culinary metaphor, “some things you have to almost undercook, some you have to keep longer in the oven. Long Run is very, very talented but you would not want to overdo him. Binocular is quite stuffy and he needs a bit of racing. Whatever happens when he runs at Sandown the real target will be Cheltenham.”

As it happens Binocular fails to impress many in his defeat of supposedly much inferior stablemate Ruthenoise but bookmakers still keep him favourite as they do Finian’s Rainbow in The Irish Independent Arkle on the Tuesday, Bob’s Worth in the two and a half mile Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle on the Wednesday and Grandouet in the  JCB Triumph Hurdle on the Friday. They are but the early standouts of a Cheltenham team for which punters can know that no stone has been left unturned.

Indeed that is precisely the phrase which Ruthenoise’s jockey Andrew Tinkler uses as he wipes the sweat from his brow in the Sandown weighing room and looks  ahead at the month to bridge before Cheltenham. “It’s not any one thing,” says the 25 year old who has ridden more than 50 winners for the stable in the last five years, “but The Festival is always in people’s mind. It can be frustrating in November time when we have hardly got going but from now on you can sense everyone trying to do get everything just perfect for those 4 days of the Festival. What Nicky does is bring a great intensity to it – I can tell you that last schooling session we have on the Thursday before is very, very special.”

All sport is both complicated and simple. There are all sorts of technical challenges to master and then there is the actual physical almost tactile hunger for the victory line. That’s what has set Henderson ahead. His stable have wanted it more. 

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