TRAINER TALK: JAMES HENDERSON

by Jake Exelby

FROM BELVOIR TO BUSCOT

Faringdon-based James Henderson is a cousin of champion National Hunt trainer Nicky, but – while only training a few point-to-pointers and Hunter Chases for his sons to ride – he is successful in his own right. A former master of the Belvoir Hunt, he moved from Eaton, near Grantham, at the start of last season. 2014/2015 was a phenomenal year for the Hendersons – not only did jockey son Freddie finish second in the National Novice Riders Championship, but all James’ five horses won, with a total of nine victories and 12 placings from just 27 runs.

The operation is a true family affair, with many of the horses, as well as the jockeys, being home-bred. Prior to Freddie, elder son George rode his father’s horses – he is currently taking a break from race-riding to study for accountancy exams but has notched up over twenty winners between the flags and under National Hunt Rules. And several of the Henderson owned, trained and ridden winners in points have been bred from the mare Arcady – including stable stalwarts Always Roses, Dream Garden and Say No.

While Arcady never set the world on fire on the track, she won four races on the flat for James and wife Lucinda when trained by “my neighbour” Jimmy Harris, although James’ best memory was her close third in the Ascot Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1997. “We couldn’t go for the whole afternoon because George had a Sports Day at school. After that, we rushed to the races, but the Queen was leaving early that day, so all the roads were closed. Lucinda was driving, so I abandoned the car and sprinted to the paddock. She finally drove in after the race had finished!” The thoughts of his wife – who had bought a new hat for the occasion – at this lack of gallantry are unrecorded!

Fondly remembered as a racehorse, Arcady was equally loved as a broodmare. As well as the pointers, she bred all-weather winner Heaven’s Gates – who was eventually sold to Belgium and ended up racing in the famous “White Turf” event at St Moritz! “Unlike many mares, Arcady didn’t miss a (breeding) season,” confirmed James. “All her horses are nice and easy (to ride and look after).”

It was a son of Arcady, Say No, who fulfilled a long-held ambition for James when winning the Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Cup at the Heythrop meeting at Cocklebarrow last season. “My first pointing memories are of the Heythrop,” recalled James, “With horses like Lord Fortune and Sparkford winning.”

Talk of such 1970s stalwarts leads us on to James’ introduction to the sport as a rider. “My first ride was on an old hunter called Sporting Member – he was useless – and my first winner was Roman General, trained by Henry Hill. He ran in the Grand National and was an amazing jumper, but I only rode him well after his glory days!” James reminisced. “He’d have been good if he’d stayed sound.”

James won his only Hunter Chase on the former Michael Dickinson trained Prince Rowan and rode a total of 11 winners in points. His mounts between the flags included his cousin Nicky’s former smart two-mile chaser Acre Hill, and Manna Bridge, who according to the form book and embarrassingly for James the rider, “dosses with learners, but goes kindly for Louise (sic) Henderson.” James and Lucinda’s horses were qualified with the Fitzwilliam – “hunting came first, then pointing” – and his last winner was on 33/1 shot Highland Lairdat Dingley in 1993.

His last ride, as recalled by daughter Annabel, was on a horse called Cheryl’s Lad, again at Dingley, in 1999. “I was quite little and remember wanting to bet on My Shout who always seemed to win. But I backed Dad by mistake and he was only fourth out of five!” Asked if she had any ambitions to ride in point-to-points like her brothers, Annabel replied “I’d get too much advice!” “

After giving up riding, James moved from East Anglia to the Belvoir country, where Lucinda is from, and took a few years break from the pointing scene to focus on hunting and owning horses under rules. His interest was rekindled by George’s desire to get going as a rider. “George started in 2010, riding five winners on Aztec Warrior, who we got from Tim Radford (owner of Somersby and Calgary Bay among others). George won seven on him before Aztec broke a shoulder at Garthorpe. He was a lazy old bugger (the horse, not George!) but so good at jumping.”

Most of the Henderson horses were trained by Chris and Antonia Bealby at Barrowby, but Lucinda set up on her own at nearby Eaton in 2013, with Say No and Dream Garden. Annabel enlightens me on her mother’s approach to training. “Mum had no gallops, so she used to take them on two to three hour hacks!”

Family reasons prompted the move to Buscot Park last year. Lucinda and James manage the house and extensive gardens, which are owned by the National Trust and open to the public from Wednesday to Friday and alternate weekends from late March to late September. The contents of the house are owned by the Faringdon Collection. Luckily for the equine inhabitants of the estate, the stables are set apart from the public grounds, in an old grain barn, which was turned into stables in 2014.

“There hadn’t been horses here for over 100 years, although my great-grandfather bred champion pigs!” laughed James. “The old stables became tea rooms, so we had to start again when we moved here.” So how did James become interested in horses and racing? “I drifted into it from hunting. Johnny Henderson – Nicky’s Dad – encouraged me. He gave me Acre Hill to hunt and ride in point-to-points.”

With James busy in London during the week – he is a highly-rated Fund Manager for an investment company – much of the responsibility for training the horses is down to Lucinda and Annabel, ably supported by Toni Lander and recent arrival Lucy Neilson – who will have her first rides between the flags this season. “I just do the entries and spend time reading the form book,” he confesses. “Lucinda does the feed order and the bits that matter!” Annabel jumps in, worried that James is underplaying his role. “Dad does get up at six o’clock to ride out before going to London,” she adds loyally.

Walking round the yard, James and Annabel give me the lowdown in the stable strength for the 2015/2016 season.

Dream Garden

“Lucinda’s favourite and such a pet. He won his first two points and eight in total but is 14 now. Is he retired? That’s a question for debate.”

Oliver James

“Hunts regularly. Very fragile and only ran three times last year but beat Dabinett Moon (at Whitfield) and won his Members at Lockinge. A lot of people had written him off and most trainers wouldn’t have him in the yard!”

Otto The Great

“Ex-Nicky Henderson and Toni’s favourite. It can take longer (for them to come good) when they’re from a professional yard, as it’s a different experience. He’s more relaxed this year, but whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know.”

Say No

“Broke down after winning at Cocklebarrow and family opinion is divided as to whether he’ll run this year. He’d be great if he had his mental strength in a different body!”

Thanks For Coming

“Another Ex-Nicky Henderson horse, he was disappointing at the start of last season, but won at Whitfield and was a good second to Gonalston Cloud at Garthorpe.” Finished fourth on his first run of the season at Cottenham.

And with the James-owned and Antonia Bealby-trained Dream Mistress – who, as half-sister to Dream Garden and Say No, is another daughter of Arcady – winning impressively at Cottenham earlier this month, it looks like being another successful year for James and his team.

As the sun sets on Buscot Park, James tells me about his hopes for point-to-pointing – “what the sport needs is more horses and more jockeys” – and how he feels the new rules are addressing these needs. “It’s good that they’ve reduced the cost of the jockey’s licence, and lots of horses don’t stay three miles, so the new two-and-a-half mile races will bring more in.” With these words, I take my leave, full of optimism that – in an increasingly professional sport – there is still a place for a family concern.