Racing: Best Mate's best friend

Cheltenham countdown: Jackie Jenner gave up the day job for a horse - and hasn't looked back since
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The Independent Online

If ever timing was right, Jackie Jenner's arrival at West Lockinge stables could not have been judged more to a nicety. A week before she joined Henrietta Knight's payroll, another girl had left. Jenner inherited one of her charges, a bay five-year-old with two runs under his handsome girth. His name: Best Mate.

Her eyes still sparkle at the memory of their introduction. "All I knew was that he was a novice hurdler, but that they thought a lot of him," she said. "And the first time I sat on him I just thought, 'Wow'. I'd ridden a few nice horses in my time, but nothing like that. He was just a completely different feeling to anything I'd ever sat on before, or since for that matter. Everything was, and is, just so easy, so fluent, so smooth."

Jenner, 34, came to what she regards as not merely the best job in racing but in the world via a route well known to the pony-mad. Brought up on the Romney Marshes in Kent, where father Henry farmed sheep and mother Josie worked for the social services, she felt the tug early. "We couldn't afford a pony but I used to ride other people's, and help out at the local stables. I'd get on anything, the ones that others didn't want to ride, just to get a ride. When I was at school I wanted to be a jockey but I was told that was silly, and that as I was quite keen on maths as well I'd be better off with accountancy."

After leaving school, Jenner compromised by working for a firm of accountants while keeping a horse as a hobby. But eventually she gave in to the siren call. "I'd started riding out for a local racehorse trainer at weekends and holidays and I got bitten by the bug again," she said. "Then I left the accountancy and went full-time with horses, and had a few rides in amateur races. Then I thought I'd better get serious about life and went back to accountancy. Then I went back to riding out part-time again and finally realised where my heart was. And I made that phone call to Hen on the off-chance that there was a job."

The skill and dedication needed for the task of caring for a thoroughbred racehorse cannot be overstated. A horse can be ruined, physically and mentally, by incompetent handling, both from the ground and in the saddle. Jenner is described by Knight as trustworthy, unflappable, dependable and likeable. The horses under her care - not only Best Mate, but Edredon Bleu, Impek and a youngster called Wenceslas - would probably not disagree.

For four years, Jenner has watched her Matey grow and develop as an athlete and character. And, typically of stable lads, who never seem to object when their half-ton darlings threaten serious damage, she forgives him his early trespasses. "When I first started doing him, he was really full of it, a real jack the lad, like a coiled spring," she said. "But when he bucked and kicked it was always in a playful way, never with any malice. No nastiness, but the minute he touched grass he'd just explode, buck-buck-buck. He had me up in the air a few times. But he always caught me on the way down."

As the seasons have turned, Best Mate has mellowed and matured, in no small measure due to Jenner's management, for a good lad or lass can instil self-belief in a horse. "He's settled down and grown in confidence," she said. "When we first went to the Festival, he'd cower towards me as if I was a security blanket. Now he struts his stuff, as if to say, 'Hey, look at me everyone, I own this place'."

Like people, some horses are brighter than others. Those close to Arkle con-sidered him to have an above-average brain, and Best Mate is the same. "He will weigh up a situation and decide what to do," said Jenner. "It made me laugh at our open day; when he wanted a break from all the petting and attention he calmly turned round and presented his bum to the door. He could not have said, 'Leave me alone for a bit' more plainly."

Arkle comparisons are being made more frequently, and there is another parallel at West Lockinge. Johnny Lumley, Arkle's lad at Tom Dreaper's, was as blessed as Jenner in his charges, for he also looked after crack two-miler Flyingbolt. Jenner's nurturing of the evergreen, but nervous, Edredon Bleu has surely contributed to his success.

Jenner appreciates the boost to her finances from her association with the cracks, and rather enjoys the celebrity it has brought, but the rewards go further. Emotion, at both ends of the spectrum, is involved. "Initially you try not to get too attached," she said, "because they're not your horses and you know it's a hard game and anything can happen. But you share so much with them, the highs and lows, and you get a bonding. You respect them and admire them, but you do end up loving them."

Jenner has not suffered the terrible loss of a horse in action. "You reason it through; you know it is a sport and if it wasn't for the sport they wouldn't be here, and they get five-star treatment," she said. "But every time they go to the start you get a horrible sinking feeling in your belly. Every time. All you want is that they come back safe, and when they clear the last it is pure relief. But I have to watch it all, I'd hate not to see it happen and find out later. I want to be there with them, as close as I can, in triumph or disaster."

Jenner's work has taken her places she could hardly have dreamed. "My parents thought I was mad to give up my steady job," she said. "But they see the fun I've had and they're proud that I'm involved. They came to the Gold Cup last year and when I got my award my dad was in tears. This job has changed enormously. You're not going to make huge money but you can be comfortable. People do it now because they want to, not because it's the only thing they can do."