What this savvy Irish trainer has achieved in jump racing this season is remarkable. Jennifer Donald meets the incredible driving force behind the team who are rewriting the history books
TO win either the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Chase or the Champion Hurdle in a season would be a life-defining moment for any trainer. But to claim all four, the holy grail of jump racing, in the space of four weeks is simply extraordinary. Henry de Bromhead has barely had a chance to draw breath during the whirlwind of the past two months.
“The whole thing’s been incredible – it does feel special but you have to pinch yourself a bit,” says the trainer from his Co Waterford home. “I grew up watching all these races and never dreamt I’d have a runner in them, let alone win them.”
While many trainers must be eyeing his winning haul enviously, Henry cannot pinpoint this season’s winning formula – it’s just something he’s been “tinkering with” over the years.
“I never expect – always hope,” he says. “But I’m basically always trying to improve what we do. There have been no big changes though, we just hit a purple patch at the right time.”
The Rachael Blackmore factor undoubtedly played its part and Henry is quick to credit the influence of his stable jockey, whose analytical approach makes her the master tactician.
“She’s a brilliant rider, the ultimate professional and she’s great to work with so we’re very lucky to have her,” he says.
But there’s also a 35-strong crew working tirelessly behind the scenes, and the calibre of Henry’s 100 horses in training is truly selfie-worthy. Champion hurdler Honeysuckle, Gold Cup winner Minella Indo, the quirky champion chaser Put The Kettle On and Grand National winner Minella Times may be the headline grabbers, but A Plus Tard, Bob Olinger and Balko Des Flos are just some of the superstars sharing the limelight.
Henry, 48, who rolled up his sleeves at the Cheltenham Festival to join his skeleton crew under Covid-19 restrictions, was rewarded with the leading trainer title with six wins on the card.
“There was a lot of pressure with Honey being such a red-hot favourite for the Champion Hurdle at the start, so her winning was brilliant – but there was a bit of relief as well,” he says. “It was just unbelievable the way it went on and on. I wouldn’t like to pick any of them out as the stand-out one, in their own different ways they were all incredible.”
Barely a month later, the fairy tale continued as Henry sent out the first two in the Grand National, finishing the season just shy of the 100-winner mark behind Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins.
HENRY’S father Harry was a shrewd trainer in his day, described by his understudy as “an original thinker, a bit unorthodox”, but following in his footsteps wasn’t always the plan. Henry enjoyed a childhood riding in the Pony Club, hunter trialling and a bit of hunting, “although I probably wouldn’t have been the best rider around!” he points out. He eventually entered the racing industry through several different doors, including those of the mighty Coolmore.
“Growing up with my dad training, I’d seen how tough it was and Mum and Dad were keen for me to get some kind of qualification so, if I was going to attempt it, I still had something to fall back on – although I never really did that!” he says. “I ended up doing a lot of stud work, which I really enjoyed. Then I worked for Robert Alner, Sir Mark Prescott and various other people which gave me a much broader view of the whole industry. It was slightly by default, but I made a lot of great contacts so it was a brilliant experience.”
Henry returned to Waterford and took the helm at Knockeen, the de Bromhead family farm, at the turn of the millennium, notching up his first winner at Tramore on day one.
“We had a winner at Punchestown that year too, so it started really well,” he says. “I inherited about 12 horses and plenty of them were nice. But I was selling quite a lot at the time as well and it all just petered out. I was down to three winners in the third or fourth season and I was doing everything – riding out, driving the lorry, doing the entries. It was tough. But again, seeing it all does breed some resilience in you.”
The game-changer was when the late owner Alan Potts came to buy a horse called Oscar India.
“We couldn’t actually sell him because he had an injury, but Alan ended up buying a couple of young horses,” recalls Henry. “He then gave us the opportunity to buy a few more and in that first lot we found Sizing Europe, so that helped turn it all around. We were coming gradually, but that certainly jumped us forward a few years.”
Sizing Europe went on to win eight Grade One races for the trainer in an epic era starting in 2008. The all-important Saturday horses started to shine, including Cheltenham Festival winner Special Tiara, big owners such as Gigginstown and JP McManus invested, and the volume of success has been spiralling upwards ever since.
Henry de Bromhead’s training regime
THERE’S a masterful philosophy behind Henry’s training regime, which stems from some good old-fashioned horsemanship combined with forward-thinking innovation. Every horse has access to its own en suite woodchip area outside its stable – something the horses seem to relish – and Knockeen boasts three gallops ranging from three furlongs of sand to six furlongs uphill on woodchip. His aim is to keep every single horse “healthy, happy and fit”, and he injects huge variety into the daily regime with trips to the beach, cross-country schooling, frequent dressage sessions and loose schooling in the indoor arena.
“I suppose you can compare it to when you hear about soccer players doing Pilates; we try to shake it up a bit and it just means they’re not up the gallops every day,” he explains. “We’re just trying to get the best out of them, too. The horses seem to love it, physically and mentally.
“But absolutely I take inspiration from other people. The loose schooling would be from [trainer] Tom Costello, [agent] Demi O’Byrne and Henrietta Knight. My wife would have suggested the dressage because she’s from an eventing background, but knowing Henrietta has done it as well with her good horses gave me more confidence to try it. I’m always trying to learn from anyone and everyone.
“But it’s the crew working with us and the people supporting us that can help us make it happen,” Henry acknowledges.
While many of his horses are taking a well-earned end-of-season break, there’s little let-up for the team as Henry has been building up an enviable string of Flat contenders with which to go into battle over the summer.
“We started out just to see how we got on but when things quieten down and the infrastructure is there at this time of year, it works well. It’s a bit of fun but there’s also a global market for them so if you get one sold, it’s happy days,” he says.
Henry de Bromhead is a hands-on trainer, but he assures me he does manage to escape the yard occasionally: “My kids will tell me I don’t, but I try to!”
“They’re doing a lot of showjumping now so that’s great fun and that’s my main downtime,” he adds. “I just feel very lucky to be doing something I love. I enjoy all aspects of it but I particularly love the buzz. You’re flat out every single day, but I enjoy that, too. I’m sure there are some aspects of it we don’t do as well as others, but we try to do it as best we can.
“We’ve been lucky enough to win a lot of big races over the years, but the past few weeks have been unbelievable – although I don’t think it’s truly sunk in. I don’t expect this sort of success every year! But I always say that if we can maintain what we have, keep winning the bigger races and keep a stable of horses similar like this, I’d be happy. It’s what you dream of.”
You can also read this interview in the 13 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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