A remarkable feat made Debbie Henderson a big name in New Zealand racing, but her career was cruelly cut short, writes Ashley Stanley
Debbie Henderson became famous in 1994 as the first woman to win the Grand National Steeplechase in its rich, 145-year history.
At the time, she was a 20-year-old apprentice to horse trainer and now good family friend Brian Anderton.
Less well known is that she also won the Great Western Steeplechase and Great Western Hurdle that same year – remarkably on the same day. She was the first woman ever to take out all three titles.
They’re considered to be among the top jump events in the New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing calendar. Each year, there are roughly 100 meets a season, the latest beginning early this month.
It had been unusual for an apprentice to have ridden in a race like the Grand National. But Anderton knew what Henderson was capable of, and always backed her.
“The National is a big deal,” says Henderson, who crossed the line aboard Noble Express. “A lot of apprentices didn’t ride in the race because it was worth a lot of money. And I was an apprentice and also a girl.”
There were other male jockeys available, who had more experience, who Anderton could’ve chosen for the 5600m race but didn’t. “Because I did the work at home as his apprentice, I knew all the horses,” Henderson says. “I did all the schooling and I had been riding all his jumpers anyway. There was no gender with Brian, you know.
“I was an equal to men or whatever. I was just the same. I was a jumping rider and I had to do whatever the boys did as an apprentice. I used to go and cut hay and all that stuff, but that’s what I wanted to do.”
It was a memorable day for the Anderton family with Brian’s son, Shane, finishing second with Peridot.
For the young jockey, the Grand National win at Riccarton in Christchurch in 1994 was a stunning high point. But racing was also, years later to take Henderson to a deep, deep low.
Her first taste of victory at the top level had come in 1992, when she was 17. She had 12 seasons of top competition, but in 2003, her life was forever changed after she fell off her horse at a steeplechase event in Hastings. Henderson broke her back at the age of 29 and has been in a wheelchair since.
The mother-of-one recalls that she had been pretty “full on” before that accident, riding jumpers and working night shifts at the freezing works.
“When you’re always going somewhere and doing something and then all of a sudden you’re not, it’s really challenging getting hurt,” says Henderson, who had travelled to compete in places like Australia and Japan.
“But it could’ve been worse. I could’ve broken my neck or had a severe head injury, or even been dead. I suppose, I probably would’ve liked to have been dead in the first while but no, I can’t complain now.”
Adjusting to challenges in the early stages after the devastating injury was eased by “amazing friends.”
“They were great. They took me out nightclubbing and everything, they were the best ever,” Henderson says. And she and her friends are still going on adventures together today.
Looking back, Henderson says injuries were part and parcel of riding in jump races. She had a fair few in her time.
Before winning the Grand National, Henderson had broken her cheekbone and jaw in three places. She had stitches in her face as well as surgery.
But she couldn’t sit still and wanted to get out with her horses as soon as possible. She was back riding within a couple of months of that accident.
“It was something ridiculous like that,” she recalls. “They didn’t want me to ride that early in case I got hit in the face, which you know, riding jumpers and falling off, is part and parcel. But I got back riding, and then I won the National after that.”
Later that year, Henderson would again be off the horses for longer, as she broke her pelvis in three places and ended up in hospital for seven weeks.
Towards the end of her seven-month recovery in 1995, Henderson went to Riverton races to watch the Great Western. She was plucked from the stands an hour and a half before the race in place of jockey Paul Hillis who had missed his flight to the event.
Henderson ended up riding the stablemate of the horse she had won with at Riverton the previous year.
“I got clearance to ride and the funny thing was trying to find racing gear to fit,” she says. “I ended up winning the Western that year as well and won the South Island jump jockey premiership for most wins in a season.”
In the eight times Henderson raced the Great Western Steeplechase, she won an unprecedented five. Unfortunately the event has been cancelled this year due to low numbers – only the third time in its 115 years.
Throughout her 48-win career the adrenalin of riding had kept the thought of injury and risk at bay for Henderson. “That’s the thing about riding jumpers,” she says. “People fall off, but you normally don’t have anything bad happen. I mean, you fall off, break a bone, it heals and you carry on.”
She’d always ridden ponies as a child growing up in Oamaru. And her father owned race horses, so they’d always been part of her life.
“I love horses, they’re everything,” Henderson says. “Show jumping was a thrill and was my original love. And then racing was even better because you got to go fast and jump over fences at the same time. That was pretty cool.”
Henderson rode in her first Springston trophy (the largest pony club event in the Southern Hemisphere) when she was 10 and went on to win back-to-back U17 showjumping titles when she was only 13 and 14.
After three years at St Kevin’s College in Oamaru, she headed south to Mosgiel to begin her horse apprenticeship with Anderton.
Nearly 20 years since her career ended, what does Henderson put her success down to?
“I don’t know,” she modestly says. “You just get to know your horse, you know. The fence is there to be jumped so you have to look after your horse.
“They’re not motorbikes, horses are not machines. It can’t go fast all the way around. You’ve got to give them the best opportunity so that they can do it.
“And I was lucky to have some really nice horses. And some really cool trainers give me rides.”
Henderson’s nine-year-old son, Will, has his mother’s love for adrenalin. He’s riding around on his motorbike on their lifestyle block in Oamaru, as we talk over the phone. Both keep her busy these days.
“The first time I saw him ride a bike, I actually put my hands over my eyes, and went ‘Oh no, of course he loves to go fast, of course; his mother loved to go fast. And she had no fear’,” says Henderson.
“He understands that shit can happen though because his mother is in a wheelchair. But in a good way. He loves rugby, fishing, boats, bikes, and any kind of animals.”
Their racing friends took Will to his first rugby game earlier this month. “Will is still very much involved in the racing as well, even though he doesn’t race, because he knows all the people.”
Henderson has stayed involved in the industry as an owner in the Diamond and Woolshed Wednesday Syndicate with the Andertons and others.
She admits the transition from racer to owner took a while to get used to. “But it’s great going to the races now. Who doesn’t like going to meet up with friends,” she says.
“That’s what racing and sport is all about. The people around you doing what they love.”