Nicky Henderson: ‘Unless you spend a day in a stable you haven’t a clue’
Trainer is still unhappy with treatment from the press over his handling of Altior’s fitness
Nicky Henderson: “The press have beaten me to bits … they’re calling me a liar”. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
“You have to be very careful with him because he might be like me,” Nicky Henderson says as he describes Might Bite, the horse he trains and the favourite for the King George on Boxing Day. We are 20 minutes away from Henderson, the current champion trainer, becoming so upset he ends this interview abruptly while warning that some racing reporters are “dead meat”.
After a warm opening, full of “golly gosh!” exclamations, Henderson has not objected to any questions – even when asked why Might Bite is also a capricious racer prone to outbreaks of lunacy that threaten to cost him certain victories. “Tread carefully with him,” Henderson says of Might Bite and, perhaps, himself. “These horses don’t want bullying and that’s where they might be like me. I don’t need bullying at all. I can be enthusiastic, he can be enthusiastic. But I can be easily wounded and so could he.”
Last month Henderson fell out with journalists who asked him questions about the way in which the betting market reacted for several hours before he confirmed that his horse Altior, the favourite for next year’s Champion Chase, would not be able to race in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown. Two evenings before Henderson had appeared on At The Races and stressed that Altior was “magnificent” and “totally on target” – even though it emerged, subsequently, that a whistle had been detected in the horse’s breathing the previous Saturday.
Henderson, having understandably sought a second opinion from a vet, informed the owners before, at 7.08pm on Wednesday November 15th, he turned to Twitter to reveal the horse would not race. Five minutes later he tweeted a statement from the bookmakers, Unibet, who pay him a retainer to write a column, to confirm the news. The problem, for racing’s integrity, was that the first rumours of Altior drifting in the betting had occurred on social media that afternoon. Some opportunistic punters made easy money before gossip became fact.
There was no suspicion that Henderson himself benefited from the small amounts won by gamblers who suddenly backed other horses instead of Altior or laid him on Betfair – the betting exchange that allows punters to back a horse to lose. Henderson is one of racing’s most respected figures, who won his fourth champion trainer title this year, so it would be remiss not to ask him how this situation could be avoided in the future. But, knowing how angry he was last month and having been warned he is particularly unhappy with the Guardian, it seems sensible to delay the inevitable confrontation in the hope of re-establishing common ground.
“The great thing is he hasn’t had many battles,” Henderson says as he extends the comparison between Might Bite and himself. “He’s naturally talented. I’m naturally not talented. He is brave, I’m not very brave. I’m exactly the opposite.”
Might Bite is, potentially, a great horse but he has had three mishaps – at Kempton last year and twice at Cheltenham. In this year’s RSA Chase, Might Bite was 20 lengths clear of his closest rival and stablemate, Whisper, at the final fence – only to veer to the right and slow to a trot on the run-in. Might Bite rallied only when Whisper overtook him. He won in the final stride by a few centimetres. Might Bite did something similar at Cheltenham in 2015 when he conceded a comfortable lead near the finish – only to recover and edge out his rival.
Is he the equine equivalent of a showboating sportsman? “He likes to dominate, he’s showy,” Henderson agrees. “He’s very good looking – that’s where the similarity ends with me. He’s a real sexy horse with a very sexy name. I did happen to name him actually – because I owned him for a bit as nobody wanted to buy him. And then we put a syndicate together which includes my sister and lots of my friends. He and Sprinter Sacre are two of the best-looking horses I’ve seen. But just because you’re good-looking doesn’t mean you’re brilliant. But these horses can run. I knew that at Kempton last year when his performance was extraordinary.”
But then Might Bite and his jockey that day, Daryl Jacob, suffered “a horrible fall. It was probably unnecessary but there you go – these things happen.”
Why has Might Bite had two meltdowns at Cheltenham? “He jumps the last fence and knows where he came out so he turns right. Next year I’ll be standing in the gap waving.”
Henderson raises his arms and shows how he means to keep Might Bite on track after the last fence at Cheltenham – possibly in the Gold Cup? “We’ve got to get through the King George first. But if he wins the King George then the Gold Cup will become the objective.”
In the last year Henderson’s yard has overcome two devastating losses with the retirement of Sprinter Sacre and the death of Simonsig. “By last November we’d lost them and they were our two biggest shots. We had to fill that void and luckily we did within two months. We always had high hopes for Altior. Might Bite you would have never guessed. Crikey, we ran him in the Feltham after winning one novice race. It wasn’t: ‘Oh golly gosh, look, there’s a horse we just suddenly found.’ But we didn’t know what to expect. Buveur d’Air was a novice chaser so who knew he’d come through? But all three did and softened the blow after bizarre circumstances which led to the loss of Sprinter and Simonsig in one weekend.
“You feel like a steamroller has hit you. But you get up on Monday morning and lead your gallant men back into battle. Some of them are mortally wounded because they live with them. Those horses were two of 140 for me, even if they were very special. Sprinter was the nearest thing you’ll come to heaven for me. I adored Simonsig. Losing him was awful and you think: ‘That’s it. Do I really need to do this?’ Yes – because there are people far closer to both horses than me.”
The King George means a great deal to Henderson which explains why he turns up at this media day, near Lambourn, organised by 32Red – the race sponsors. “As a kid [who went to Eton] Arkle was my legend and he finished his career in the King George. I won it twice with Long Run. We don’t have Classics as they do on the flat. We’ve just got our Group One races – but some mean more than others and the King George is a Classic.
“I also love Kempton. I rode my first winner there and I was the worst amateur ever. Abbey Warrior was trained by Fred Winter and it was 33-1. Fred Winter never had a horse at 33-1 before. The only reason was because the man on top was so bad. I hadn’t got a clue but he won. I was 21 and look where we are now.”
Henderson was earmarked for a career in stockbroking but he loved horses – as his parents did. “My mother died three weeks after my first winner. She was killed in a hunting accident aged 48 – but at least she saw me ride a winner. She loved the horses and probably knew I was never going to finish up in the City. Dad said to me thousands of times how much mum would have enjoyed [Nicky’s success].”
It’s time to ask Henderson about Altior. I start gently and suggest that the fact questions were put to him did not imply he was taking advantage of the situation himself. Surely the fundamental point is that racing’s integrity needs to be protected. “I’ve looked after the press better than anybody. And one or two questioned whether I was actually telling the truth. That hurt me like hell. We could not have done anything else over Altior. I promise you. Until you spend a day in a racing stable and understand what goes on, are you licensed to write about it? Otherwise you’ve got to take it as we tell it because you haven’t got a clue. They’ve never mucked out a box in their life. They wouldn’t know the difference between a forearm and the foreleg.”
In regard to not mentioning the whistle heard in Altior’s breathing five days earlier, Henderson points out that horses make many noises. “The next day [after the controversy] I was going to write a report on every horse and say, ‘Print it.’ Every single horse would have had a comment.”
There was a time-lag between Altior drifting in the betting and Henderson releasing his Unibet statement that evening. But the key point, from Henderson’s perspective, is that he issued the statement as soon as he was clear in his own mind about Altior’s health. “There was none, there was zero time lag,” he says. “Absolutely zero.”
When I suggest the lag between odds lengthening and his statement was more than two hours, he responds angrily: “It wasn’t possible to do it any quicker.”
This reflects Henderson’s focus being primarily on the well-being of Altior. But many observers believe all trainers ought to react more quickly when informing the public about problems affecting their horses - as a way of protecting the popularity of racing.
Henderson highlights similar cases – while asking me to leave out the names – and argues that others have not been questioned in the same way. “I was open and said exactly what happened. JP McManus [the racehorse owner] said: ‘Say nothing. It’s so much easier.’ I paid the penalty for talking. The penalty now will be that I will never talk again. I will say nothing.”
He picks up his jacket and prepares to leave. But I cannot believe the garrulous trainer will take a vow of silence. Does he regret saying that Altior was “totally on target” for the Tingle? “Whatever I tell you is 100 per cent truthful. From now on I will do it through my Unibet voice. I will do my blogs for them but talk to nobody else. The press have beaten me to bits. They’ve tried to undermine my credibility. It’s like they didn’t believe me. So i.e. they’re calling me a liar. But one or two people are dead meat.”
Henderson sounds like The Godfather so to cheer him up, before we return to more serious questions of how appropriate protocols can be introduced to avoid this fiasco happening again, I ask him about Altior.
“The horse is 100 per cent,” the 65-year-old says brusquely. “He’s had an operation. There we go – but that’s not the subject we’re discussing. The press room really disappointed me. Print. Print! Print! That’s a quote. I can be disappointed with results, I can be disappointed with horses. But I’ve never been so disappointed with people as the media and how they treated me.”
Yet, before we began our interview, I had watched Henderson being his usual convivial self with racing journalists. “Sure,” he snorts, “but get on to that subject and you’ll get me.”
He must understand that, in a detailed interview, I am compelled to ask about Altior? “You are – but print what I said. Look how the press treated me. Some of them were, quote, ‘appalling’. I’m embarrassed to know them.”
Henderson makes it clear the interview is over by standing up.I would like to ask some more questions but he is intent on stressing that his media interaction has ended. “It’s over.”
He accepts my handshake but looks away. We then walk straight into a photographer. He is an old pro, of course, and so Henderson stalks away to do a photo shoot. He ends up smiling – perhaps because, as our photographer suspects, Henderson does not know it is for the Guardian. Yet it is likely, especially if Might Bite wins the King George, that Henderson’s media silence could be broken by festive cheer – and one day we might all find a way to calmly discuss the case of Altior, and many other horses, without angry recrimination. – Guardian service