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Staying Power: Nicky Henderson's

*This piece is a taster of my upcoming book on all things horse racing. Stay tuned for more. Subscribe free here*

Seven Barrows has tides and cycles of its own; each hour, waves of people holding buckets and horses crash in through the open archways, then wash out to the hillside and leave the walls without a sound to echo. Every movement seems natural, as if the lads and horses act on instinct. The instinct they’re following is Nicky’s.

Nicky Henderson’s stone blue chinos are torn at the heel by the tread of his ancient jodhpur boots. Every morning when his herd trot by him, his bright eyes flick between horses as they pass; two black labradors at his feet. The man is an establishment, with all the sense and lack of serenity that 42 years training racehorses can give.

“Is the fire as strong as ever?” I asked him once.

“Oh it has to be, you drop by that much” he says, pinching his fingers “and you’re out.”

Nicky’s tenacity has been the making of him and his horses. Take Sprinter Sacre: unbeaten from December 2011 to April 2013, gaining the third highest handicap rating of all time for a steeplechaser. Sprinter’s wins were emphatic and he flew, until ‘the dark days’ as Nicky calls them – “It was absolute hell, the 18 months of ‘why don’t you retire him?’ It’s only because we’re quite obstinate, we were determined to go on. Thank God we did.” Sprinter Sacre came back to win a second Champion Chase and was called ‘the horse of a lifetime’. Nicky, too, is determined to go on. Even on his 70th birthday, I never saw a glimmer of retirement in his eyes. It’s surprising, because – even in the masochism of spectacular loss – most racing fans enjoy racing. Not Nicky. “Oh God, Jesus Christ, I am known to be Not Very Good Under Emotional Stress. Watching the racing – we go through hell and back every time! No fun in it whatsoever. You’re just glad when it’s over.”

I never did find out why he does this job. When I asked the lads why they do it, Paddy, and Hannah, and Satyan, and the others, they all smiled beneath their helmets and said the same thing, “Because I love it.” Nicky just laughed, “Because I can’t do anything else!”

I’ve found love everywhere I’ve looked in racing, but not always the longevity that made Seven Barrows feel so different when I arrived. AP McCoy told me that when he was a jockey “One person was your life, you know; one trainer. You didn’t move around like now.” “It’s changed,” he said. It doesn’t seem to have changed here. Satyan came to Seven Barrows from India 9 years ago, ‘Neil the Wheel’ has been here since before I was born, Hannah started looking after Buveur D’Air when he was four – he’s 10 now. Their names are all printed on metal strips which slide into the wooden riding-out board where Nicky agonises over who rides what. A relic of the old days, its are grooves worn smooth as the tack room’s dusty wooden floor.

And yet the yard still breathes. In the Victorian tack room, an Irish voice is teasing an English one about some girl. Another voice – the girl, apparently – caws back and the stakes rise a little. Somebody Scottish pitches in with something clever and the laughter rumbles on. Charlie Morlock, Nicky’s right hand, turns to me, “Honestly, it’s like an episode of Love Island crossed with Coronation Street.”

It was Charlie that showed me the lie of the land at Seven Barrows. As ‘Second to God’, or so the lads call him, he’s always brisk but never hurried. While Nicky focuses on getting the runners ready, Charlie marches along the yard’s winding pathways with a clipboard in one hand and cotton wool in the other, keeping the everyday ticking over with an attitude of chipper practicality and a smattering of sarcasm.

Nicky, Charlie and I watch the first lot of horses together each day. They blink into the light and brighten as they turn out of the shadowy warm-up and clatter toward the all-weather gallop; a length of poly-track almost three horses wide, which curves left-handed for five furlongs (1000m) up open farm-land. At the bottom of the hill, the tangled shapes of horses are almost lost against the dark feathery bushes, riders sitting hard and focused until they each come into the brightness and rise, relaxing gently forward with a stance and a mind that tells their horse to bowl onward. The Jeep hums level with the third horse back, a loud mechanical shadow to the eager lifeblood alongside us. In those first days, it was too early for me to know which horse was which or who was riding, so when the ground rose until the horse’s hooves were grazing the horizon of the white sky, the silhouette was total.

One by one, the next riders set off, and then, stretched across the blankness are six horses moving in sequence, flickering in black-and-white, like frames in a Muybridge film.

Soon I was riding Theinval and the all-weather got longer, the horses louder, and the reality of racehorses more urgent. The style was tough and backwards to everything I knew; pulling the reins makes the horse go faster, get your weight up and over him and he’ll ‘go to sleep’ behind the horse in front. Over time my stirrups got shorter and my bum got higher, but the depth of trust it takes to relax a racehorse doesn’t develop overnight.

Theinval (pronounced Tea-in-val) has a white stripe on his broad nose, and at 10 years old is far longer in the tooth than the two-year-old I used to ride at George Boughey’s. “He’s a bit of a hero around here,” says Charlie, “A longstanding customer of ours.” National Hunt (jump racing) horses last longer in their races and their careers – instead of one mile, they’ll run three; instead of three seasons, they’ll have six. Experience pays, I’m told. And, jumps fans say “Flat racing is business, jump racing is sport;” these owners are supposedly more interested in seeing what their horse can do than what it can make at stud.

There’s little you can do to teach a horse to run, but you can teach a horse to jump. On Thursdays, the jockeys take the horses over schooling fences. Nicky only allows the licensed jockeys over jumps, which means chaos inevitably ensues while people attempt to switch horses in fog as thick as pea soup and a hurry.

“Nico!” shouts the boss across the field, “Why don’t you give that to Lewis, and – Falko Blitz, have you got boots on? You come onto Son of Camas. Carolina you can come and take this. Can somebody leg up Lewis please!”

The horses who haven’t schooled are excited and the ones who have are buzzing with the thrill; there’s a tangle of leg-ups and jumps down, and Nicky’s voice calling to everyone and no one through the fog, “Don’t get kiiiiiicked!”

I grew to love Thursdays. On my first one, everybody was debating whether or not to school Altior ahead of the Tingle Creek (ultimately withdrawn). Sky Sports Racing was at the yard for a feature, AP was watching as usual, and Nicky’s two black labradors sat serene and uninterested at his wife’s feet, not even looking.

“Altior enjoys doing it,” Charlie explained, “But two days before a big race there’s always the risk that he might nick himself … Does he need to do it? Mm, no – he knows how to jump a fence. But it does just fire him up a bit.”

It was a privilege to watch a horse like Altior jump in the open privacy of the Downs. Tension settled among the group as he bowled towards the first fence far faster than the other horses, pushing himself off the ground with his right fore and meeting his left in the air. He sailed over in a hung contradiction of weightlessness and power, pulling up his hind legs and straightening his forelegs, then finally meeting the turf and exhaling in one synchronised blow.

The eyes of the ex-jockeys, AP McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald, followed him quietly, expressionless; so experienced that they needn’t look closely – they just saw. As the other horses schooled, Mick would ask if I saw the way the jockey was pushing to lengthen the horse’s stride and how the horse danced for an extra step before it took off. Time slows in the eyes of experience. He saw not just what the jockey did, but what they were trying to do.

“Do you miss it? Riding?” I asked him.

“Yes I do, I miss it every day.”

Mick and AP were both stable jockeys here. After each set of jumps, they walk over to the riders, hands in coat pockets, and offer their advice. Joe Anderson is still ‘conditional’; three wins to Mick’s 1300. “It’s not an easy life, but the good days make it worth it,” he says, his strawberry blonde hair sticking out any which way after he takes his helmet off; his pale eyebrows always pinched into a half-frown. “I wanted to be a jockey when I was little, like little little. I grew up in Liverpool, never ridden horses or anything before, and I went to the Racing School when I was 18. That was just over 6 years ago… It doesn’t sound like very long but it feels like a long time. To go from nothing – it’s a fair old grind, like.”

The lads ‘do’ their own horses, mucking out and looking after the same three every day, and, if they’re capable, riding them too. “Trouble is,” Charlie says, “they don’t always match. But, if you can – well, it gives people a certain sense of pride if they look after a horse and ride it, then it really is their horse.” That connection is the great reward and the great risk of working in a racing yard. Publicly, there’s the pride of leading it up at the races, past people and cameras and, one day, leading it into the winner’s circle. And, quietly, in the half dark of the morning and the half dark of night, there’s warmth. “I couldn’t leave him,” one girl told me, putting a saddle on her horse’s back with strong, true hands, “I’ll leave when he retires.” She pats her horse’s neck, and, in return, he puts his head to her chest. Legal ownership falls by the wayside; the horse is hers.

That’s why on the yard, you don’t feel the push of the racecourse. The rewards of the job are more gentle, and when your reins are balanced in numb, red hands, your eyes narrowed against the freezing rain, that perseverance hasn’t the gloried adrenaline of those final, exhausted yards. And yet, sometime in the course of a winter spent moving with thoroughbreds at dawn, in a life half-lit by the yellow lamps of stables in the evening, perseverance lowers its hackles and unfurls into commitment.

The last thing Nicky said to me was this: “You know what it’s like … all we’re trying to do every morning is just keep thinking and think positive. Kick on. You have to, really.”


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Alice Whaley riding Theinval

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So fun reading about your adventures in the world. Can't wait for you to be able to come back for a visit.

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