London (AFP) – National Hunt training great Nicky Henderson has told AFP he hopes he won’t end his stellar career without winning the “greatest steeplechase in the world” – the Grand National.
The urbane 67-year-old Englishman thought the Aintree marathon was going to be easy to crack when Zongalero finished second in his first year as a trainer in 1979.
But four decades on he is still searching for his first winner of the National in which he plans to run the improving Gold Present in Saturday’s renewal.
Henderson, who missed becoming the first trainer to sweep the three major races at the one Cheltenham Festival last month when Might Bite finished second in the ‘blue riband’ Cheltenham Gold Cup, chuckles heartily at being compared to Rory McIlroy and his frustrating pursuit of an elusive Masters green jacket.
“I’m flattered,” the four-time champion British trainer told AFP by phone.
“I’ve been very lucky at the other place (Cheltenham) but having said that I have won five Topham’s (raced on Friday over National fences but over half the distance).
Henderson, who eschewed following his father’s career path of being a stockbroker to pursue his love of ‘The Sport of Kings’, added: “It just seems going an extra circuit hasn’t worked for me..I don’t know why!
“When Zongalero finished second in my first year as a trainer (1979) I thought it was going to be easy.
“I have had several where I have thought going to Becher’s second time ‘wow they are going well’ but then they fell over!”
Henderson, who has won a record seven Champion Hurdles and with five wins is one off the record of Tom Dreaper’s six Queen Mother Champion Chases, is unequivocal as to where the National stands for him.
“The National is as great a race as there is,” said Henderson, who has joked in the past he has not even won a Shetland Pony National.
“It is not an exaggeration to say it is the world’s greatest steeplechase.
“If I was asked whether I would rather win a Gold Cup or a Grand National it would be a split decision — if you win the Gold Cup you have the best horse but if you win the National you have won the greatest race.”
– ‘Finished upside down’ –
The trainer, whose gentle burr is not the traditional cut glass accent of an Old Etonian, says the race has undergone a renaissance over the past 30 years largely thanks to sponsors such as Seagram.
Indeed one of his two runners-up in the race was The Tsarevich (1987), owned by Ivan Straker who as chief executive of Seagram’s had been responsible for their sponsorship which effectively rescued the race in the 1980’s.
“The quality of the horse in the National has gone up in recent years and the race itself has been resuscitated compared to when I was riding.
“On occasions there wouldn’t be a full complement of runners.”
Henderson, who as an amateur rider won their ‘Grand National’ The Foxhunters and got round in a National declaring it in true corinthian style as being “great fun”, says Gold Present is an intended runner on Saturday but could do without more rain.
Should the ground improve he would be a live contender with wins under his belt at Newbury and Ascot this term.
“He ran in the Topham as a novice last year and finished upside down though it wasn’t his fault,” said Henderson.
“He’s got class but he needs good ground. The intention is to run.”
Henderson says there are several horses in the field he would love to train but his mordant sense of humour regarding his fortunes in the race resurfaces.
“Blaklion (fourth last year) would be the horse I wouldn’t mind training in this year’s race but then I would probably still get it wrong!”