“Don’t call it a comeback – I’ve been here for years” barked LL Cool J on his 1990 single ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’. The New York rapper had enjoyed a golden run in the mid 1980s, with a string of hit records, but by the end of the decade looked set to be swallowed up by a host of upcoming, more aggressive acts.
LL Cool J (or Ladies Love Cool James) probably doesn’t feature on Nicky Henderson’s iPod – I’m not sure he owns an iPod – but the trainer will know the feeling of being knocked off the top of the charts.
Henderson was champion trainer over jumps for two consecutive seasons (1985-86 and 1986-87) before the juggernaut that was Martin Pipe steamed into view. The revolutionary Pipe, the interval trainer with a thirst for winners in every grade, grabbed the sport by the scruff of the neck, picked it up and refused to let it go for the best part of two decades.
“Pipe left none of us with a frigging chance,” Henderson remarked to Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder back in November 2008. “You battle, of course you do, but it was like fighting against thunder.
“His sheer numbers just flummoxed me and there was a short period when I wondered what on earth I would do.
“I was lucky to have that window as champion but I have no pretensions about being champion trainer now – I’m getting too near the senior end. Paul [Nicholls] has it tied up at the moment and I think Kingy [Alan King] will be the next one.”
The prediction about Nicholls remaining at the summit has proved correct, but not about his biggest challenger.
Alan King’s upward trajectory has been checked over the last few seasons. Philip Hobbs, David Pipe, Jonjo O’Neill and Donald McCain are battling for promotion in the trainers’ table yet, remarkably, it is Henderson himself who is threatening to end the Ditcheat domination.
Having broken the 100-winner mark for the first time in 2008-09, Henderson has, numerically at least, been the most successful trainer for the past three seasons. In fact his tally has continued to rise since that maiden century.
Only the Grand National performance of Neptune Collonges stopped Henderson from halting the Paul Nicholls bandwagon and gaining a third championship last term. It may take a similar effort from one of Nicholls’ inmates to stop the trophy heading back to Lambourn this year – and even that may not be enough.
The strength in depth at Seven Barrows is phenomenal; the stable has at least two contenders in most of the championship races at the Cheltenham Festival, including the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, as well as housing, in the magnificent shape of Sprinter Sacre, the most exciting horse currently in training.
Charged with making sure all the Henderson runners get to their respective start lines in peak shape is a battalion of dedicated and hard-working grooms, work riders and stable employees.
The part played by these individuals cannot be underestimated – they also know the horses better than anyone, as I hope our Cheltenham Festival preview shows. Turn to page 49 for a behind-the-scenes exclusive.
Another exclusive in this issue is an unmissable interview with Robin Geffen. The man behind Neptune Investment Management, sponsor of the 2m 5f Grade 1 novices’ hurdle on the second day of the Festival, talks to Alan Lee (pages 36-40) about his route into racing and hopes for the future.
Geffen is a relative newcomer to outright racehorse ownership, yet he has already tasted Classic success on the Flat and Grade 1 glory over jumps, endured frustration with a string of near misses at Cheltenham and, tragically, seen one of his most promising horses killed in action.
It seems plenty can happen in just a few years. But then Geffen need only have spoken to one of his trainers, Nicky Henderson, to know that.