A beautiful morning in the rolling Berkshire countryside and Nicky Henderson carries the air of an enthusiastic headmaster on the first day of school.
‘It’s getting exciting, isn’t it?’ Henderson says, and he’s right — that Cheltenham stages day two of its first fixture on Saturday afternoon tells you the seasons are changing; summer to winter, Flat to jumps. ‘It’s like you’ve got 150 kids out there, you have to try to understand them all.
‘One disadvantage for this headmaster is that boys can talk and these (pupils) can’t. You’ve got to work out for yourself what they like and what they don’t like. You’ve got to be careful, you can get very stroppy horses. I could show you some! You’ve got to read what they want.’
The analogy makes him smile, and in some respects, is fitting, given we meet to discuss a book. Nicky Henderson: My Life in 12 Horses was published last month, depicting a career — with six Champion Trainer crowns and 73 Cheltenham Festival wins — that must be described as a timeless masterpiece.
It’s no exaggeration to say a zero could have been added to the number in the title, so deep has been the pool of talent he has nurtured since he started training in 1978. The inclusion of one name, however, left him uncomfortable. The identity will take you by surprise.
Master trainer Nicky Henderson published his book – Nicky Henderson: My Life in 12 Horses
Henderson’s Constitution Hill however is not amongst the horses detailed in the memoir
The 72-year-old has enjoyed a glittering career in jump racing over the last five decades
‘I didn’t want to include Constitution Hill,’ Henderson explains. ‘The author (Kate Johnson) said we had to. I just wouldn’t have had him as he’s still racing. It’s our own unwritten law here that I won’t have a horse (formally) painted until he’s retired because I’m desperately superstitious.
‘So I didn’t want Constitution Hill in for the same reason. As soon as you do that, something will go wrong. Where he’s been lucky, he’s had two seasons without one day off. Well, let me tell you, that’s unheard of in a horse’s life. One day something’s going to go wrong. It has to!’
Henderson is being theatrical here, a chuckle accompanies the last sentence. He won’t list his superstitions, as the 72-year-old says we’d be here for ever, but it is clear how this magnificent horse invites him to dream yet leaves him terrified on a daily basis.
Constitution Hill, owned by Henderson’s great friend and long-time associate Michael Buckley, is one of those rare animals with the capacity to jump from sport sections into the hearts and minds of the general public: he rises at obstacles as nimbly as a jet and soars as majestically as Concorde.
The gelding has a perfect record of seven wins from seven runs, his victories include last season’s Champion Hurdle and the 2022 Supreme Novice Hurdle. He’s won those races by a combined distance of 89 lengths and never looked like breaking sweat.
This isn’t new territory for Henderson. Sprinter Sacre, described in the book as ‘a glittering athlete beyond all athletes’, was held in similarly lofty esteem by the wider public. His exploits were staggering yet it is entirely possible Constitution Hill will surpass him.
The trainer has been awarded the honour of Champion Trainer an impressive six times
Last season, Henderson won the Champion Hurdle with Constitution Hill, and feels the horse could continue to succeed this season
Henderson previously trained Sprinter Sacre – who is included in the book – to similar heady heights
‘I don’t know if it’s killing me or keeping me alive — one of the two, you can take it either way,’ he says. ‘This is it. It’s the thing that Michael has discovered. He says, “Now listen, this isn’t my horse any more. He belongs to the public. So did Sprinter”.’
Constitution Hill, potentially, could become the first horse to win four Champion Hurdles. Henderson trained See You Then — one of the five horses to have landed three. He also has a chapter.
‘But,’ Henderson interjects. ‘Some say, “Nah! You’re boring (for not going over fences with Constitution Hill)!” Well, fine! Everybody has a view and that’s great. We are the curator of an extraordinary animal doing stupid things, but, because of what he is, we’ll pray to God nothing goes wrong.’
Asking for help from a higher power is a nice line but it is at this juncture Henderson gives a glimpse into why he has enjoyed such success for so long. We pause the interview, so he can go and oversee the last group of horses that are to work on this particular day.
He leans over the fence of a covered, circular gallop. Each rider who trots past shouts out the name of their partner and, rapid fire, Henderson tells them precisely what they must do then awaits feedback. Modesty would ever prevent him agreeing but what he has is a gift.
‘You’ve got to read what they want rather than be told what they want,’ says Henderson. ‘You’ve got to have good owners and you’ve got to be surrounded by top class people. They’re absolutely vital — here and out there. That’s where we’re very lucky.
‘I’ve one advantage: I’ve got no problem — and never have had — getting up in the morning and going like a lunatic ‘til lunchtime. I’m up at 6am every day and straight into battle. I can do it on the worst hangover in the world. If you’ve got horses like this, of course you’re going to get up in the morning.’
As well as training horses for the Queen Mother, Henderson trained for the late Queen Elizabeth II
Still at the height of his powers, Henderson isn’t likely to be ending his enjoyment any time soon
He’s in full stride now. Henderson, who had life changing treatment to preserve his sight last year, tells stories of training for the Queen Mother and how ‘she loved life and all that went with it’, but, more than anything, he talks about his determination to keep being a high achiever.
‘We are lucky that proper good horses still appear here all the time,’ says Henderson. ‘I’m as hungry as ever. I’m competitive too — you’ve got to be. But the one thing it’s got to be — the most important thing — is fun. I’m adamant about that.
‘We work hard, we play hard and I don’t mind admitting it. It’s not all chocolate and roses. You can’t have good days without bad days and that goes for anybody who does anything that’s remotely got anything exciting about life. You’ve got to enjoy it.’
With Constitution Hill around, the enjoyment won’t be ending any time soon.
Nicky Henderson: My Life in 12 Horses is published by Pitch.