Terry Biddlecombe: Jump jockey who was champion three times and enjoyed a second career assisting his trainer wife, Henrietta Knight
Wednesday 08 January 2014
Two eras ended with the death of the three-times champion jump jockey, Terry Biddlecombe, at the age of 72. He was one of the last of the great saddle swashbucklers, young men who rode and played hard and lived for the moment with scant regard for health or safety, even if such constraints had then existed. And his second life in racing, which brought him to the affectionate note of a whole new generation of the sport's fans, was as valid and possibly the more rewarding. One was a function of his love of living, the other brought the love of his life.
Biddlecombe was born into racing; his father Walter combined training the family horses and farming on the banks of the Severn near Gloucester. The thrill of winning a flapping race on a pony at a local show when he was 14 helped decide his direction; two years after that he rode the first of 908 winners under the Rules of Racing in a novices' hurdle at Wincanton. And that, too, was a pointer to the future as the teenage amateur Mr TW Biddlecombe galvanised the 20-1 outsider Burnella to head the 4-7 favourite, ridden by the reigning four-time champion Fred Winter, in the last strides.
The first of Biddlecombe's titles came in the 1964-65 season, the last in 1968-69 (shared with his brother-in-law, Bob Davies) during his nine-year association with trainer Fred Rimell's powerful stable at Kinnersley, Worcestershire. His greatest friends and rivals were men such as Davies, Josh Gifford, Jeff King, David Nicholson, David Mould. And at a much more relaxed time for sportsmen, a world away from today's abstemious regimes, he was the cavalier's cavalier, living life with the choke out. His soubriquet was "the blond bomber"; he was handsome, with a shock of fair hair, a winning smile and unlimited charm and a wicked sense of humour that never left him.
Tales of his off-course hell-raising, with wine and women a persistent theme, are legion, some of them even true. But despite, and even because of, his sometimes intemperate lifestyle, he was a very fine jockey indeed. His carpe diem attitude served him well on a horse; he rode with strength, commitment and excellent judgement, fearlessness, flair and a wholehearted determination to have fun.
Though a natural and gifted horseman, he did not have the ideal build for his chosen job. He developed a distinctive and highly effective style, riding shorter in leg and rein than most jump riders. As he neatly folded his tall frame he was able to deploy real power and persuasion as he sent a horse thundering, inevitably on just the right stride, to the last obstacle and on to the finish. He exuded dash and derring-do and the racing public loved him.
But sauna baths (often all-night sessions in Jermyn Street after an evening's roister) and sweat boxes had to be his second home, in a black plastic sweatsuit, with champagne (of course) his anti-dehydration intake of choice. The constant abuse of his body meant that the effects of inevitable falls and injuries were magnified, but were shrugged off again and again. For most of his career he rode wearing leather braces on his lower arms, the legacy of two badly broken wrists.
Biddlecombe took most of the sport's major prizes, including the 1967 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Rimell-trained Woodland Venture by half a length in a driving finish from Stalbridge Colonist. He had badly torn knee ligaments in a fall the previous day, but unofficial painkilling injections into the joint enabled him to take the mount. The Grand National eluded him; even he was unable to recover from a fall that split a kidney in time to ride his stable's 1970 winner Gay Trip.
His finest performance in the saddle is universally judged to be his never-give-up victory on French Excuse, who had blundered to a standstill half-way round, in the Welsh Grand National the same year. Biddlecombe had lost 9lb in the sauna that morning and suffered a heavy nosebleed before and after the race, which he finished in a state of near-unconsciousness. The medication prescribed by the course doctor was a pint of Guinness with salt; autres temps, autres moeurs indeed.
His body eventually said "no more". His last winner was Finmoss, at Wincanton in March 1974, his last ride Amarind in the Cathcart Cup at the Cheltenham Festival a week later. In a most moving gesture of professional respect his six rivals, including Mould, Richard Pitman, Tommy Carberry and Andy Turnell, held their horses back so he could canter solo to the start and take the ovation from the faithful in the grandstands.
Retirement had been inevitable but was unwanted, and with it came a plunge into an abyss; no real job, two broken marriages, a fruitless spell in Australia, alcoholism, a return to Britain in 1992. Fate, though, was at work to rectify the situation.
A chance meeting at an equine auction with the trainer Henrietta Knight, who as a young woman had worshipped the blond bomber from afar, led to one of the sport's most endearing romances and racecourse partnerships. Biddlecombe, a superb judge of a horse, became an integral part of Knight's operation at West Lockinge in Oxfordshire and together they unearthed, at a rain-sodden Irish point-to-point, and developed the raw talent that was to become the triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate. They married in 1995 and were known as the odd couple; he the outspoken, rough-edged West Country farmer's son, she an Oxford graduate and former biology teacher. Their tearful, happy embrace as Biddlecombe walked back into the Gold Cup winner's circle 35 years on to another deafening ovation remains a poignant memory.
Biddlecombe's injuries, wasting and drinking took their toll and in later years he was in constant, but typically uncomplaining, pain. In 2011 he suffered a stroke and his health further deteriorated, and Knight gave up her training licence to nurse him. He died at their home, she at his side.
Terence Walter Biddlecombe, jockey: born Gloucester 2 February 1941; married 1995 Henrietta Knight; died Wantage 2 January 2014.
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