Henderson still waiting for Aintree glory

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The name N J Henderson is synonymous with jump racing success but Britain’s longest-serving top rank trainer remains unable to capture Grand National glory. By Enda McElhinney

The Master of Seven Barrows has been training for almost 42 years but has never managed to better a Grand National second spot.

Jumps racing royalty

The name Nicky Henderson resounds with fans of national hunt racing fans. Now in his 70th year, the former multiple champion trainer maintains the same boyish enthusiasm for the game he possessed when taking out his license back in 1978.

He’s won Champion Hurdles and Cheltenham Gold Cups and was the first trainer to reach a half-century of winners at the Cheltenham Festival.

Almost remarkably given his levels of success, a traditional Grand National win continues to elude him. Henderson has yet to win the English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh National.

Almost the perfect start

Henderson started training in 1978, having been assistant to the illustrious Fred Winter, and he came close to Grand National success at Aintree almost immediately.

His first Grand National outing as trainer was in 1979 with Zongalero who would finish runner-up by just one-and-a-half lengths to Rubustic in the Merseyside marathon.

In the intervening 40 years, Henderson has not managed to do any better in the world’s most iconic steeplechase despite saddling over 40 runners in the great race.

The Tsarevich was also second in 1987, while Classified had been third a year earlier and a fourth place came in 1990 with Brown Windsor.

It’s a record he is all too aware of and Henderson has in the past joked that he is “not meant” to win Grand Nationals.

Bittersweet American success

Brain Power’s triumph in the American Grand National of 2019 provided Henderson with his maiden success in a ‘National’ although the Far Hills win would turn out to be bittersweet.

For one thing, Henderson quickly acknowledged the American National “bears no resemblance” to what is recognised under the moniker in Britain and Ireland.

Secondly, the victory was marred by the sad demise of Wicklow Brave, the Willie Mullins-trained star seemingly with the race at his mercy when he fell fatally at the last jump.

“Believe it or not, this is the first Grand National I have won in 41 years with a trainer’s licence but obviously it bears no resemblance to what we would associate with the words ‘Grand National’ as it is essentially a hurdle race,” said Henderson.

“He [Wicklow Brave] was such a good horse over the seasons and was as tough as they come.

“It was a case of two grand warriors doing battle in the closing stages but sadly one of them is not coming home. It was difficult to celebrate the win in the circumstances.”

Aintree challengers in 2020

Henderson has four possible Aintree contenders among the entries for the 2020 Randox Health Grand National. They are led by Ok Corral who is joined by Beware The Bear, Dragon d’Estruval and Valtor.

Ok Corral has less chasing experience (six runs, three wins) than a typical National winner but after his success at Doncaster in January, his trainer was quick to suggest Aintree is on the agenda for the JP McManus-owed winner of the Sky Bet Chase on Town Moor.

“He doesn’t have an enormous amount of experience but he’s a good jumper and the National has got to be on the shortlist,” said Henderson after the Doncaster win.

“We’ve got a lot of thinking to do but he is ten. He hasn’t got a lot of miles on the clock because when he was a young horse he was very hard to train.”

There would scarcely be a more popular winning trainer than Henderson if he makes it into the winners’ enclosure on April 4.

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