Seven o’clock and the light had not yet come up in Lambourn. The newsagent’s window glows bright as you push through the village from Membury; a mile up the Faringdon Road, the huge modern barns of Barry Hills’s new empire gleam brighter still. But we dip left between still darkened hedgerows. Another mile, a lodge and a gate on the left, and up a scrunching drive to probably the smartest address in jump racing, to where Nicky Henderson trains at Seven Barrows.
At this hour, smartness and the fact that the Queen Mother, the Lloyd Webbers, assorted adventurers, captains of industry, newspaper editors and superhacks are amongst the 100 head of owners, matters not a jot. There is work to be done. Henderson swallows his coffee, comes out of the kitchen door and threads fifteen paces across the flagstones to where secretary Rowie Rhys-Jones is already beavering in the office. ‘All my important decisions,’ he says, part pressure, part relief, ‘have to be made by 10 o’clock in the morning.’
Some have already been taken. It would have been an hour and a half earlier that head lad Corky Browne and his three assistants set off on their quiet, bucket-echoing vigil of feeding and checking legs amongst the 120- strong equine academy. Thirty minutes ago the place would have begun to fill as other hands arrived to muck out and tack up for first lot. In very different ways, the same little tableau is being played out all over the country. The dynamo of stable routine has been switched on. The place has a purpose.
Which brings us to the ludicrous good fortune of the visitor.
Esprit de Cotte is all bridled, saddled and waiting, his bed of shavings already changed. He is a tall, bay eight-year-old who came from France last season. You may remember him falling when going well in the Becher Chase at Aintree in November, and then disappointing along with stablemate Fiddling The Facts in the Welsh national. He is entered for the national itself at Aintree. But first he and I must follow the others into the famous covered ride where former Seven Barrows maestro Peter Walwyn long preceded John Cleese in his portrayal of Basil Fawlty.
Covered rides are brilliant inventions. Time was, and for many stables still is, when everyone had to circle round an often slippery yard in all winds and weather. For riders and trainers alike, such circumstances are hardly conducive for those vital first checks of tack and action which can avoid so much trouble later. Esprit de Cotte’s saddle seems to fit, girths are tight enough, bad luck about his pilot.
Ahead of us, three lads turn to each other and discuss carnal relations. Quite whether they were actual participants or mere watchers on television appears uncertain, but it was ever thus. Into the centre of
the ring, Henderson leads a group of owners from Highclere Thoroughbreds, here to see their one-time Derby hope,now Triumph Hurdle-bound, Architect. In the string, one in front of me, Diana Henderson tries to feel good about the thought of scribe and snapper and four more for breakfast.
Racing wives need a book to themselves, some of it with an X-certificate. But when Diana was invented she came with an A-grade. In an earlier life I met her while she and her twin sister Jane and I tried to follow her hopelessly unafraid father, John Thorne, over posts and rails on his idea of schooling practice. On Ben Ruler at Stratford in 1976 she beat her Dad in a hunter chase to become the first woman to ride a winner over fences. In 1978 she signed up with N. Henderson and, along with Browne and travelling head-lad Johnny Worrall, remains one of the four cornerstones who have been there from the start.
Diana is leading the string on the compact little Stormyfairweather. ‘He’s a bit of a nutter,’ she says, a neat, compact figure behind the mane, ‘but he fits me.’
Corky has come alongside. He is 57 now but still rides as lean and easy as the youth who did five years’ apprenticeship at The Curragh and then spent twenty years with Fred Winter before Killiney’s death at Ascot all but broke his heart.
‘There’s Blue Royal,’ he says, one of the stable’s three big fancies for Saturday’s Tote Gold Trophy. ‘He’s well.’ Yes, the horses can keep you young.
Or age you if they pull too hard. If you haven’t done it for a while, there
is always an awful moment when the string sets off for a ‘canter’ and your horse does an early plunge and wants to rush past them at full gallop. All the earlier admonitions – ‘He’s fine, doesn’t pull, just drops his head’ – count for nothing as my hand locks needlessly hard on to Esprit de Cotte’s reins. For a few horrible seconds I think my strength will fail and I will be ignominiously carted up towards where Henderson waits, a distant speck at the top of this six-furlong, uphill all-weather.
Mercifully, Esprit de Cotte relents. Or, to be honest, Diana Henderson ups the pace a bit. You forget just how quick a Thoroughbred’s ‘canter’ can be. Esprit de Cotte has a marvellous, fluid-rolling stride. His head stretches out, firm but balanced. If he gets his act back together, what a ride he would be at Aintree.
He and the forty others in the string have done this before. At the top they ease down like cars with the ignition switched off. A strangely complicated piece of circling takes place before we all retrace our steps to the bottomand do it all again. Corky is on the chestnut juvenile, Regal Exit. Some in the yard think that Mister Banjo is the Triumph Hurdle horse. Others have taken a price about Architect. But Corky, who only ever goes to Newbury and Cheltenham and has already walked in behind First Bout, Alone Success and Katarino after the Triumph, assures me that Regal Exit will be the fourth.
Architect has now been peeled off with six others to walk back across the Kingston Lisle road for the schooling grounds, where the pale, lean, crumple- faced figure of Mick Fitzgerald is waiting. Three times Architect jumps the four flights of schooling hurdles. each time he is as neat and bold as an expert.
On his arrival from Newmarket he may have been in a grumpy mood about the various hobdaying and gelding operations he had been subjected to, but this looks like a horse reborn. He is due to make his debut shortly. On the way home I backed him for Cheltenham at 20-1.
Schooling can be the fraughtest of all stable occasions. Trainers can burst blood vessels with frustration. When I rode for Persian War’s trainer Colin Davies, his ultimate gasket-blower was to throw his cap on the ground and jump on it. Henderson has had his moments. But not this time. not even when a talented but gormless novice forgets all that Yogi Breisner and the others have taught him and crashes through the hurdles like a yak.
And not even when a chunky New Zealand chestnut called Demasta does one or two strange-looking leaps in his early tuition for a typically ambitious plan of owner Pat Samuel to pitch for the new multi-million yen steeplechase in Tokyo this spring. It has all gone so well that Henderson even says to me: ‘Bet you won’t jump those hurdles.’ Esprit de Cotte sets off quite sensibly but, after jumping the first, bears down on the second so fast that the resulting jump is a far cry from the peerless poise of Francome in his prime.
‘What a place this is,’ says Fitzgerald just a touch cryptically as we somehow manage to pull up. ‘If you can’t get them jumping here, you cannot anywhere.’
Mick’s confidence was never better bestowed. That Saturday he chose Geos in front of stable-preferred Blue Royal to win the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury, and at the Cheltenham Festival he scored on Marlborough, Tiutchev, Bacchanal and Stormyfairweather to become the leading rider at the meeting for the second successive year.
He also got a great run from Architect, who ran a fine race for my ante-post money to finish fourth in the Triumph hurdle, only to get killed in his next race at Aintree when battling for the lead at the second last.
In the Grand National itself Mick rode Esprit de Cotte, who was putting in the performance of his life before capsizing at Becher’s on the second circuit. For such a good jumper Esprit de Cotte was unlucky at Aintree, having also fallen when going very well in the Becher Chase the previous November and failing to finish in that dreadful, swampy National of 2001. Justice was finally done when he completed the course, albeit a distant tenth of eleven finishers, in the Fox Hunters’ Chase in 2003.