Truth is as strange as Dick Francis’s fiction. Newbury’s meeting on Saturday when, in a bizarre accident, two horses were electrocuted in the parade ring was a tragic and hideous experience. Those who heard the dying squeals of Andy Turnell’s Marching Song will never forget them. It was all the sadder because it should have been a day for us all to celebrate Nicky Henderson’s achievement the day before of clocking up 2,000 winners as a trainer, an achievement he might well have underlined by winning the Totesport Hurdle, the richest handicap hurdle in Europe, with one of his three contenders. Instead, racing was quite rightly abandoned after the first race by the Newbury stewards.
A few other trainers have managed bigger totals. Martin Pipe, who retired at Nicky’s current three score years, won 3,930 over jumps and Arthur Stephenson 2,644. But Nicky’s Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn has always concentrated on quality, a fact that will be underlined when he passes Fulke Walwyn’s all-time record of 40 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, the Olympics of the jumping game. With the strong hand he holds it could even happen this year.
Nicky would be in the running for the best-tempered trainer in racing and he commented on the 2,000: ‘It’s nice to get it out of the way. But I’ve a friend down the road, B.W. Hills, and he’s on 3,000. You can think again if you think I’m going after him.’ Having had Nicky’s assistance in writing my biography last year of Barry Hills, I have also enjoyed talking to him in the course of putting together my centenary history of the Festival, due out shortly, especially about his five Champion Hurdle winners.
The horse who won Nicky three of those was See You Then, who had legs like glass and could be raced so rarely that the racing press nicknamed him ‘See You When?’. He was typical of Nicky’s attention to detail. Steve Smith-Eccles, who rode him to all three victories, believes that See You Then’s second success in 1968, a year when much racing was frosted off, was achieved only because his trainer drove a tractor at intervals through the night to keep the all-weather strip at his stables useable when many trainers were unable to work their horses. He said of Henderson’s feat: ‘Winning two Champion Hurdles with such a horse would have been an outstanding training achievement. To win three was a horse-racing miracle.’
What I learned talking to his trainer was that See You Then was not only a permanent potential invalid but a savage, too. ‘We put a “Yorkshire boot” on him one day because we thought he was knocking a leg. It took us four days to get it off him. He was a wonderful horse outside but inside the box he was a brute. He would eat people. Glyn Foster looked after him all his life and got bitten and kicked to ribbons over the years. [Head Lad] Corky Browne and I couldn’t go in the box without him. Nor could vet Frank Mahon …we just ran him once in the last year. He went to Haydock and it was obviously going to be a tense night waiting to see what was going to happen to his legs. I woke up in the early hours and thought, “I’m going to go into that box and take those bandages off and see what they are like,” knowing full well that I couldn’t really go into the box without Glyn and as it was a Sunday morning, he probably wasn’t going to be coming in until about 8.00.
‘I got up and went downstairs and went to his box and, oh my God, the door was open …and there was Frank Mahon sat on the manger. I said, “What are you doing?” And he replied, “I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d come and take those bandages off and see how he was.” So why are you up there? He said, “He won’t let me out!”’
Then there was the two-mile chaser Remittance Man. ‘He was a terrible worrier, he used to go round and round his box, so we put a sheep in with him. First was “Alan Lamb” and then we had “Ridley Lamb” and “Nobby Lamb”— the sheep came from Dad’s flock. But when Nobby went home for the summer and joined his mates, another sheep was sent. Remittance Man flung it. He picked it up and chucked it out of the door. We put it back in. There was a lot of fur flying and then out it came again. I thought, “We can’t do this to the poor sheep,” so I had to go back to Dad’s flock and look for the right one, not easy with 400 of them. Amazingly, we sent in a horse and 399 of the sheep went one way and one came out and that was Nobby. From then on we put a blue blob on his backside — the sheep’s — when he went home for his summer holidays!’ There are many and varied secrets to a trainer’s success.