Countdown to Cheltenham…29 days.

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One from the archives, thought it might put us in the mood, as Cheltenham looms, a month and a day….

Nicky Henderson peered through his binoculars, clutching them like he had caught two rats by their necks. Then he lowered them and checked the infield big screen. Then he picked up his binoculars, watched. Again, he set them down. Again, he picked them up. His gold Cheltenham cufflinks, catching what little light there was on offer, each time he raised his wrists on this dark, damp Friday in the Cotswolds of England. Blue eyes, wide, searching, like a sailor looking for a buoy. So crowded, Henderson’s elbows knocked people’s shoulders each time he changed viewing strategies. Standing on the macadam in front of the rain-sodden Cheltenham lawn, Henderson volleyed between binoculars and big screen. As the nine horses approached the front side, binoculars. As they faded along the backside, big screen. There is an art to it, learned through years of practice, years of ecstasy, years of anguish.

His eyes could have pierced metal. His hands could have shattered concrete. His heart, well, it had burst long ago.

Henderson’s pair of Cheltenham Gold Cup runners, Long Run and Bobs Worth, were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing for the first part of the 3 ¼-mile classic, the finale of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, March 15. Veteran Long Run, winner of the Gold Cup two years ago, trying to turn it into a stamina test, on the lead. Favorite Bobs Worth, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup and 3-for-5 over fences, galloping and waiting in mid-pack. All the while, Irish raider Sir Des Champs and the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti stalked, two wolves in the night.

The massive crowd of 67,000 went along in the same manner as Henderson, watching the four protagonists spit and spar their way through soft ground and over 22 fences; sporting theatre, run without scripts, simply action countered by reaction. The preps had been achieved. The papers had been read. The quotes had been noted. Eventually, you let the big horses run.

Henderson, 62, square in the middle of the crowd but somehow in agonizing isolation, watched Long Run, jumping and galloping, enjoying the freedom and Bobs Worth, relaxing and waiting, relishing the restraint. Henderson watched, content for the first part as things went according to plan, desperate for the second part, as Sir Des Champs seemed to have Long Run measured and Bobs Worth began to plummet away from the eye of the storm. Henderson dropped his binoculars and strained for a better view as Silviniaco Conti fell at the third-to-last and Bobs Worth skirted past his sprawling rival, trying to keep his grip on the two leaders.

Jockey Barry Geraghty, who had bought and sold Bobs Worth as a young horse, hadn’t given up hope, he felt the 8-year-old Irish-bred take a deep breath and stick to the task, knowing he wouldn’t give up, knowing he was undefeated, undaunted in four clashes with the arduous Cheltenham hill. Henderson hadn’t given up hope either, he simply hoped Geraghty was getting that feeling, hoped all he had done in the months, years, leading up to this moment was right.

It’s the painful truth of being a trainer; they’re your horses, you coddle them, cajole them, mold them, think for them, care for them and then when it’s all in the balance, you’re a million miles away, just another spectator, raising and lowering your binoculars in a sea of humanity, the ball painfully out of your hand.

Henderson stared, grimaced, wavered, stretched, implored and stared again as Bob’s Worth collared Long Run and reeled in Sir Des Champs to draw away by 7 lengths. Henderson stopped, tears welling, as he was hugged by his partner Sophie, then bloodstock agent David Minton, then anybody within arm’s length. Gloved hands slapped Henderson’s back and hats were raised for Bobs Worth.

It was Henderson’s 50th victory at the Festival, increasing his lead for most career wins at the greatest jump venue in the world.

None of them have come easy.

– See Sean’s photo album from Cheltenham, 2013

– Watch Bobs Worth win the Gold Cup.