Henrietta Knight: 'I had a good cry here, but not in public. I had to keep a clear head'
The Cheltenham Gold Cup can never be the same for the trainer of Best Mate, who died of a heart attack in November. But she knows she will cope with the memories prompted by today's race
Friday 17 March 2006
Today is Gold Cup day at Cheltenham, a day engraved on the heart of trainer Henrietta Knight just as her name is engraved in the record books, following Best Mate's marvellous trio of victories in 2002, 2003 and 2004. But Knight has no runners at Cheltenham this afternoon, and it has been a disappointing Festival for her, with the much fancied Racing Demon nowhere in the Arkle, and joint favourite Impek failing to hold on in yesterday's Ryanair Chase.
Meanwhile, her most celebrated horse surveys the track only in bronze. On Tuesday Knight unveiled a statue of Best Mate, who so suddenly and shockingly expired on the track at Exeter in November, following an emotional address by his owner, Jim Lewis.
It was Lewis, more than Knight, who visibly reeled from the death of Best Mate. The former debutante, distraught though she was, dealt with the situation with the stoicism that comes as naturally to the English upper classes as passing the port to the left, if that is an appropriate analogy to use of a teetotaller who has, along with her husband Terry Biddlecombe, conquered alcoholism. "My mother used to instil in us as children that we couldn't cry in public, that we had to pull ourselves together," Knight told me on Monday, at the kitchen table of her beloved farmhouse at West Lockinge, high on the Oxfordshire downs near Wantage. "We used to breed Shetland ponies, had about 60 of them, and as children we got very attached to them but we weren't allowed to cry when they died. Someone has to keep the show on the road, you see.
"So I had a good cry here, but not in public. I had to keep a clear head, and think of all the other people involved. So on the way home [from Exeter] I rang up and told them to move my old horse, Red Blazer, into Best Mate's stable, because the worst thing when you lose a horse is walking past an empty stable the next morning."
I asked her whether she expected to be emotional on Gold Cup day, in private if not publicly? "I shouldn't think I will be too bad," she said. "It will be much tougher for Jim Lewis - in fact he wrote to me this morning saying that he's not looking forward to it. But, you see, his whole life has changed because he's lost his wife as well. His daughter and family have been brilliant, but he's not his old bubbly self at all, although I don't think his interest in racing has waned. Now that he's lost Best Mate and Valerie I think he's keen to get back into it. From my own point of view, we had a wonderful innings with Best Mate, and now that he's gone it's no good being tearful. We just have to think what a wonderful horse he was and what he did for racing. He did so much to enhance the country's knowledge of steeplechasing. After all, he was on the front pages of the nationals when he won his third Gold Cup, and unfortunately he was on the front pages again when he died, which I thought was very distasteful. In fact my head lad rang up the Daily Mail, I think it was, and complained. They didn't want to know."
I tutted sympathetically, and chose not to sound the riposte I gave to those who levelled similar criticism at this newspaper at the time, that the press and television frequently show pictures of dead or dying people in war and disaster zones, without anything like the moral outrage that attended coverage of Best Mate's passing. Still, if anyone was entitled to wince at any perceived insensitivity it was his devoted trainer.
"He changed our lives, you see. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today had it not been for him. You'd have had no interest in me. Isn't it funny, how without knowing it one does something that changes one's life. An afternoon at an Irish point-to-point [where she first spotted Best Mate] ...." She tailed off.
For Knight, long before Best Mate came along, Cheltenham Gold Cup day was unequivocally the blue riband occasion in the racing calendar. "It's wonderful," she said. "I haven't missed one for many years. Even as a child I used to be let off school to go, and when I became a trainer it was my ambition simply to have a runner. I never dreamt I'd win it three times. This year they say it's less interesting, don't they, with no real stars. But I think it will be really thrilling because there are so many runners."
There have been many great Gold Cups - Arkle against Mill House in 1964, The Dikler against Pendil in 1973, the victories in 1986 and 1989 of Dawn Run and Desert Orchid - but the memory that Knight cherishes above even Best Mate's unexpected first victory is his third, Jim Culloty driving him up the hill to win by half a length, as the Cheltenham crowd shouted itself hoarse.
"It was the best of the three because it was such a relief. I felt like a cloud had been lifted. There had been so much pressure for months beforehand, in fact Terry and I didn't go away on a long holiday - six days was the longest we were away - because we didn't like to leave him. He was a pretty valuable property by then, and Jim Lewis didn't insure him. When they're as valuable as that you can't really put a price on them, but then an even bigger responsibility falls on the trainer, in case something happens on your land."
Very little happens at West Lockinge without Knight knowing about it. She and Biddlecombe are up at five every morning, and by the time the first of their staff arrive at 6.45am, the 70-odd horses are fed. Their own breakfast, aptly, is taken on the hoof.
On Monday morning, it was a couple of pieces of toast spread with Marmite, but by then they'd completed half a day's work. It is a regime that will get tougher as they get older, although Knight is adamant that she will be surrounded by horses for as long as she draws breath. If the operation is scaled down, then it will likely be because aches and pains, not a few of them the legacy of an eventful career in and out of the saddle, are catching up with Biddlecombe, who turned 65 a week ago.
"A lot depends on Terry's mobility. He suffers quite badly from arthritis, in fact I teased him that he might have to walk the course at Cheltenham on a Zimmer frame. He didn't think that was very funny. At the moment he can cope but if he got immobile, I don't know."
It's not as though he can be redeployed behind a desk. "I do a certain amount of office work but we try to keep Terry out of the office. He's a menace in there, and he knows that." Knight likes to describe herself and her husband/assistant, if only to pre-empt what is so often written of them, as racing's odd couple. It is certainly true that they seem an improbable pair, the beautifully spoken former deb, whose sister is married to Lord Vestey, and the effing-and-blinding West Countryman. Yet the perception of them as an odd couple by all accounts dwindles as soon as you see them tending their horses together. It is then that they seem made for each other. And those who tend the horses with them know that it is the wife whose temper they must not ignite, not the husband's.
"I think they're quite frightened of me in the yard," she said with a sweet smile. "I certainly used to be quite frightened of my own mother, even though I adored her, to the day she died. And I do try to model myself on her. But she never shouted, and on the whole, nor do I. Terry uses a swear word just about every other word, but I find I don't need to. Maybe that's my teaching background. I never had any trouble keeping control over classes."
Knight was a science teacher for four years, acquiring skills that she still puts to good use when dealing with young horses. Some trainers are significantly better at dealing with horses than people, of course, but she plainly is not among them.
"I like people," she told me. "I get along with people. I don't like some of the yobbos you see, and some of the people you see in airports make you wish you weren't British, but on the whole I like people." And people, on the whole, like her. Tales of her eccentricities and superstitions are treasured by the race-going public, for whom she seems to have supplanted Jenny Pitman as the First Lady of the Turf. But does her own view of herself tally with ours? "I probably am a bit different. I was wondering this morning, as I went to feed our Connemara ponies, how many trainers with horses going to Cheltenham would be wading through mud with bucketfuls of this and bucketfuls of the other. But some of my superstitions I've let go." She gestured to some pots on the window sill.
"These old amaryllises used to flower on Gold Cup day, and if they were lagging behind then I'd put them for a day or two in the airing cupboard. But they're very sluggish this year and I haven't forced them. I still don't like seeing hay pass us on the road, though. It has to be straw. If I see a load of hay, then I might as well go home." With that, Knight led me through to her living-room, where a couple of her owners, a charming, elderly couple, were waiting to see her.
While she was out of the room mixing them whisky macs, the couple told me that they had engaged lots of trainers, but that the incomparably wonderful Knight was like no other. I needed no convincing.
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