Roll on Cheltenham? Not if you’re Henry Daly. Well, that’s not quite fair. The Shropshire trainer, the subject of a superb interview with Alan Lee in this month’s magazine, isn’t exactly keen to test his novices on jumping’s biggest stage.
For all the anticipation, excitement and razzmatazz generated by the Festival, the racing is as intense and competitive as it gets. The will to win at Prestbury Park is unsurpassed anywhere in the equine world. For the more inexperienced animals, the event can be something of a culture shock, on and off the track.
“It can be a terribly tough place for younger horses,” Daly says. “They go two strides quicker than anywhere else.
“In 15 years I doubt if I’ve had more than three runners in the Festival novices races. We deliberately kept Mighty Man away from Cheltenham because his mind would have been fried by the experience.”
The aforementioned Mighty Man, who was never at his best at Cheltenham, is undoubtedly the best horse to pass through Daly’s hands in his decade and a half with a licence. The ultra-talented staying hurdler was also the last Grade 1 winner for the master of Downton Hall stables back in December 2006.
Other high-class runners have come and gone over the years but they had all well and truly vanished by the time of the 2010/11 season, which yielded the paltry figure of eight winners from 189 runners.
For a man used to a certain level of success – none of his previous terms had returned less than 28 winners – it was tough to bear.
Daly says: “We had a bacterial infection. It was treatable but it took a long time to fix it. We discovered what was wrong but then twice used the wrong drugs. The third drug finally worked but the process had taken two months and by that time the horses were flat.
“The season was a write-off. The lads and jockeys got very down and although the owners were stoic to a man, we did lose a few [owners] subsequently.
“It was a very interesting life lesson and not one I wish to go through again.”
Thankfully for the trainer and his team, matters have improved since those dark days. This campaign has witnessed Daly’s best ever start, with over 20 victories before Christmas, something not achieved previously.
While there may not be a Mighty Man in the yard – or a Behrajan, Young Spartacus or Hand Inn Hand for that matter – the ratings of the novices indicate that the next Grade 1 triumph may not be too far away.
And don’t think that Daly isn’t desperate to unearth his next star. Beneath that calm exterior and tweed cap is a man hungry for glory at the highest level. The problem has been in communicating that message to a wider group of owners.
Daly explains: “I’m actually in awe of trainers like Paul Nicholls for their skill in promoting themselves. It’s a great talent. Some people get it wrong and go over the top but those that get it right, like Paul, do it in spades.
“It’s not in my nature. I’m very aware that I’m missing out but it’s very hard to change the way you are made. I just find self-promotion very difficult, but that is very different from being unambitious. You cannot train horses unless you are competitive.
“I need more horses and that is my frustration. But for choice, I would certainly have more. If I was offered 100, I would take them gladly.
“We have the room and I have the ambition.”
The ambition at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky is surely to live up to their own high standards in standing great stallions – no easy thing when that list of names includes Nasrullah, Secretariat and Danzig to name but three. War Front, sire of last year’s Royal Ascot victors Declaration Of War and War Command, is one of the current stars on the roster.
Our Bloodstock Editor, Emma Berry, visited the famous US operation, which has been in business for over a century, to find out more about its history and plans for the future.