Racing: Henrietta Knight, Lady of the turf

A cool head in an affair of the heart

It is a morning fit to grace any Christmas card. A high azure sky; the early sun sparkling on bare branch and fallen leaf; the sweeping Oxfordshire downland along that prehistoric track, the Ridgeway, pale and frosted. In the valley below the escarpment, a rambling red-brick Georgian farmhouse glitters and beckons. This is the setting for Henrietta Knight, a gem among racehorse trainers. She has charge of some 80 thoroughbreds, including Best Mate, the second favourite for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, on the 3,000-acre farming and sporting Lockinge estate, the family home she has known and loved, girl and woman.

It is a morning fit to grace any Christmas card. A high azure sky; the early sun sparkling on bare branch and fallen leaf; the sweeping Oxfordshire downland along that prehistoric track, the Ridgeway, pale and frosted. In the valley below the escarpment, a rambling red-brick Georgian farmhouse glitters and beckons. This is the setting for Henrietta Knight, a gem among racehorse trainers. She has charge of some 80 thoroughbreds, including Best Mate, the second favourite for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, on the 3,000-acre farming and sporting Lockinge estate, the family home she has known and loved, girl and woman.

It is a quintessentially English backdrop, and upper-class English at that (the Queen Mother was among the mourners at the funeral earlier this month of Knight's mother, Hester) but with the delightful deletion of any form of stereotypical side or stiffness whatsoever. In fact, West Lockinge Farm, a higgledy- piggledy arrangement of stables, horses, ducks, geese, hens and yellow retrievers, seems to be swept along on waves of sheer, slightly loopy, happiness.

Knight, 55, and her helpmate and husband of seven years, the three-times champion jump rider Terry Biddlecombe, 60, have been described as racing's odd couple – she, pretty posh, a former schoolteacher, a spinster for so many years; he, from an earthy Gloucestershire farming family, twice previously married, the wild man's wild man in a cavalier era when over-indulgence was part of a jockey's job description – but is a double act that so very clearly works.

It has been well-documented that they dragged each other back from the booze brink. Their other shared passion, horses, has provided headier pleasures, for from the pooling of their complementary talents and knowledge has come one of the most formidable partnerships in the game.

And one of the most overtly devoted. On Thursday morning, as Best Mate came sailing through his final serious big-race lung-opener, it was perfectly apparent, by look and gesture, through the banter and the serious business, that Hen 'n' Terry are in love, with each other, with the horses, with their shared endeavour and challenge. It would not be too schmaltzy to say that this pair are drunk on life.

Despite the havoc wreaked by disease and weather on the sport that is their profession, the past year has confirmed the upward curve of their operation. The end of last season brought a second successive top-10 finish on the trainers' table; in the present campaign, the stable is lying fourth behind the West Country triumvirate of Martin Pipe, Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls. And flying the flag at the highest level are Best Mate and Edredon Bleu.

Knight first took out a licence 12 years ago, after some success with point-to-pointers. Horses have been part of her life forever; she can remember racketing around the Lockinge estate on ponies and has a thorough grounding in other branches of equestrianism than racing, including a stint as a selector for the Olympic three-day event team.

Self-deprecating but briskly practical, she admits that the coming of Biddlecombe to the team made all the difference. "It must have done, mustn't it," she said. "I wasn't much good on my own. But the thing is, it's four eyes instead of two, two heads instead of one. And Terry is good at the things I'm not. I'm hopeless at reading a race. And he's so good at going to the races and with the owners, who adore him." A trainer who dislikes going racing is not such a contradiction as it may seem. Knight is by far happiest when she can remain in her own environment, with her charges. Training them, in fact. "The only bit I really like is the bit at home," she said, "preparing the horses, watching them develop, getting them in the best condition possible.

"I very often hate going to the races. But you have to go if you're part of the team, go and talk to people. You really have to pull yourself together a bit and face things. On the day I suppose it is important to be there for the saddling up but once the jockey is on board that's it, you can't do anything more except watch." Or not, in this case. One of Knight's proclivities is that she cannot bear to witness her star horses actually running. Not through superstition but a gut-wrenching aversion to the combination of seeing injury or failure as it happens and being subjected to public gaze the while. "I don't want to see a really good horse hurt or see it make a fool of itself and, I suppose, our judgement," she said, "so if something goes wrong I want to be on my own." There is less stress at home, where control of events is in her own hands and she is, according to Biddlecombe, "the most amazing perfectionist".

One of the particular tricks to West Lockinge is the morning routine she has devised. Instead of going out in a massed string, the horses roam the estate and the close villages in pairs, as if they are going for just a pleasant hack with a chum. There is effort involved, of course – the gallops field known as Butterbushes is in use most days, and its longest, steepest climb of a mile to the top of the Ridgeway would daunt all but the strongest and fittest – but somehow, the grind seems less. "They are spread all over the countryside," said Knight. "They stay much more relaxed and don't really know they are working."

Best Mate, whom Tony McCoy will get to know over a few fences tomorrow, is in formidable form for the greatest test of his career. Cruising up Butterbushes under his regular exercise rider, Jackie Jenner, he was beaten to the top only by a hare flashing across the silvered turf. Later, in his box, Jim Lewis's gelding showed himself a true gentleman as he took mints from his trainer.

"When I had the pointers here," said Knight, "I had young horses from Fred Winter and Tim Forster to teach to jump. So I suppose I've been spoilt, always being around lovely horses. I was in Ireland recently and someone reminded me that even before I had a licence I'd told him that I wanted to have a yard with the sort of quality chasers like the Dickinsons.

"He said he'd thought it was a bit of a tall statement, but then, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well, and you've always got to look forwards, not to the past. And when I see the horses we've got in the yard now, there's the future to dream about."

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