As Nicky Henderson celebrates his 70th birthday, Sir Anthony McCoy has paid tribute to the champion trainer’s longevity at the pinnacle of the sport.
Having served his apprenticeship as assistant to the late Fred Winter, Henderson went it alone in 1978 and has gone on to become one of the most decorated National Hunt trainers of the modern era.
McCoy, who retired from the sport after being crowed champion jockey for the 20th time five years ago, enjoyed several big-race winners for Henderson, many of which came in the latter part of his riding career through his association with leading owner JP McManus.
McCoy said: “I’m not really into opinions, I’m more into facts, and the facts are that Nicky Henderson had been at the top of his trade long before I was ever around.
“He’s lasted the test of the time and moved with the times. He’s trained with the very best at every stage of his life and trained the best horses for however many decades. Not many people can do that over that period of time.”
Perhaps the most notable horse McCoy rode for Henderson in the McManus colours was Binocular, who he steered to success on nine occasions, including in the 2010 Champion Hurdle and in successive renewals of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
“He was very easy to ride for because he’s at the top of his game, and the reason he’s at the top of the game is because he has such a good understanding of horses and people,” McCoy added.
“He’s able to use his experience to get the very best out of his horses. You couldn’t have high enough praise for him.
“He’s a gentleman and has great patience and a lot of class. His record speaks for itself and he doesn’t need me to talk him up as a trainer, but as a person, I can see how he’s lasted the test of time and stayed at the top of his profession for as long as he has.”
Henderson claimed back-to-back trainers’ titles at the end of the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons – and while he did not top the table again until the end 2012-13 campaign, he is the reigning champion again and his tally now stands at six.
The master of Seven Barrows has enjoyed 68 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, leaving him second in the all-time list to leading Irish trainer Willie Mullins (72).
Even since McCoy’s retirement, the Henderson-McManus axis has proved extremely fruitful, with the pair combining to claim another three Champion Hurdles with dual winner Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018) and Epatante (2020).
Last season’s RSA Chase winner and leading Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ is another name to conjure with for the pair.
Passing on his congratulations, McManus said: “This is another great milestone for a remarkable man. Wishing him all the best on his birthday.”
Henderson’s big-race haul at the Festival includes a record eight victories in the Champion Hurdle, a joint-record six wins in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and two Cheltenham Gold Cups.
Barry Geraghty was appointed his stable jockey in 2008, following the enforced retirement of Mick Fitzgerald, and the pair formed a formidable partnership – winning the Gold Cup with Bobs Worth and the Champion Chase with Sprinter Sacre in 2013.
Geraghty later replaced McCoy as retained rider to McManus – and together with Henderson, the trio landed a whole host of major prizes, including two of the last three Champion Hurdles with Buveur D’Air and Epatante.
Geraghty, who announced his retirement earlier this year, said of Henderson: “What makes him so good is how well he looks after his horses. The horses always come first. If the horse isn’t right, they won’t run because he is always thinking longer term.
“He has so much experience to call upon. He has a sympathetic approach to a horse, but he gets the best out of them.
“When you have a look at the horses in his yard, they all have a certain look to them – they all look quality. He schools them so well and his attention to detail is second to none.
“Being there in February, when he’s prepping them for Cheltenham, watching him watching his horses on the gallops – that’s an education. You can’t teach what he has, it’s instinct.
“He was brilliant to work with, I had some great days with him, even when I was riding for JP I was almost based with him. You’d never stop learning from him and he was a brilliant man to work with.”
Fitzgerald had to call time on his riding career after suffering serious neck injuries in a fall in the 2008 Grand National at Aintree.
He said: “I think we’ve all seen that the number one thing with Nicky Henderson is that his horses come first. He is not afraid of getting flak for doing what he feels is the right thing.
“I was lucky enough to be alongside him for 15 years and I learned an awful lot about how to conduct myself for being in his company.
“Year after year he produces the goods. He’s just a very, very good trainer and he’s a nice man to boot.
“Only recently he’s put in a water walkway for the horses as they get off the gallops. I was there thinking ‘why’, but he’s doing it because he thinks it will help the horses.
“He’s not afraid to change with the times, he’ll do whatever he thinks it might take to carry on improving.”
Other equine stars to pass through Henderson’s capable hands to date include three-time Champion Hurdle winner See You Then, dual Champion Chase hero Altior and 2011 Gold Cup victor Long Run.