Racing: Knight banishes old ghosts with Demon's quest
The trainer of Best Mate talks to Chris McGrath about the rising talent that could pierce the hype around Kauto Star in Boxing Day's big race
Friday 22 December 2006
Frozen as the day itself, a dead crow hangs from a tree by the duck pond. "One of Terry's ideas," explained Henrietta Knight. "Thinks it might keep other crows away." She does not sound terribly convinced. Certainly it cannot discourage the return of the vultures that Knight and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, endured so benignly while Best Mate won consecutive Gold Cups between 2002 and 2004, introducing the Turf to an immortal screwball partnership.
Since Best Mate's death last year, of course, the invasions and inquisitions before a big race are less stressful, and less common. In fact, this arcadian Oxfordshire farm has been surprisingly neglected during Racing Demon's preparations for the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. "I suppose everyone thinks it a one-horse race," Knight shrugged.
For it has not taken long for the sport to discover something better than best. After three rampant performances this season, Kauto Star is already being anointed the new Desert Orchid, never mind Best Mate. Knight is not fretting over the relevance or effrontery of such comparisons. Surrounded by cards marking her 60th birthday, she has the equanimity that comes with fulfilment. She can regard the restless questing of others with the same amused detachment as the arrival of a stripper at the staff Christmas party the previous night.
"Terry's face was a study," she said. And here were the photographs to prove it. "He wanted her to stay, but she had to be up at 5.30 to ride out for Alan King. Of course he can't wait to tell Alan now." Little wonder if Biddlecombe has now retired for a siesta. Though the temperature has skulked below freezing all day, on arrival he had been finishing an ice cream. "I was looking for some potted shrimps," he said, apparently by way of explanation.
Outside, roosters shriek defiantly at the mist hiding one of the shortest afternoons of the year. Nor is there any undue sense, round the kitchen table, that the light of life is too ephemeral. In a certain, guilty way, Best Mate is not missed at all. "We always felt as though we were training him for the whole nation," Knight said. "He had such a following, we felt a huge responsibility to get everything right, all the time. It was constant pressure. We were very nearly at breaking point. Well, no, that's the wrong word - but we were nearly exhausted by it all, and at times couldn't focus on anything else."
Naturally, she will never forget the privilege of training Best Mate. Nor has she any regrets: they knew all along that they were custodians of something precious. "It's just that there was never a day he wasn't being watched over," she said. "Even when out in the field. You know how it is with animals. We had a pony struck by lightning last summer, stone dead. The other thing was that other owners must have felt everything was geared towards Best Mate. Now we have lots of new owners, lots of syndicates, and everyone is getting a fair crack of the whip."
Knight won the King George not only with Best Mate but also with Edredon Bleu, and has measured Racing Demon in a race both won in their time, the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon. In fact, he was her seventh winner in nine runnings, and as impressive as any. "Nobody seems to have taken much notice," she remarked. "We thought it the best race he has run, and the form would be good enough for a normal King George. But then this Kauto Star is not a normal horse. He has been so hyped up. I would almost rather have Monet's Garden, he's a gorgeous horse.
"But Kauto Star probably is something a bit special. He was pretty faultless at Haydock. I suppose there wasn't an awful lot behind him: Beef Or Salmon seems to hate coming to England, and the rest were on the slide. But you had to be impressed with him back over two miles at Sandown. He's not a classical jumper, maybe. But people love knocking a good horse. Every time Best Mate ran, people piled in. Only I don't see how anyone can knock Kauto Star so far."
At the same time, Knight is unqualified about the way Racing Demon is training. "We couldn't be happier with him," she emphasised. "He would fit the mould better than Best Mate, who was never at his best right-handed and found the track a bit quick at Kempton. This horse will love that side of it, and I think he has been crying out for the longer distance. I'll be disappointed if he doesn't run a very big race. If Kauto Star beats us, he's every bit as good as everyone says."
Of course, success would tangibly open a new chapter, exorcise any lingering ghosts. But it is not as if these two free spirits, Hen and Terry, were ever defined by Best Mate. If anything, it was quite the reverse. Having long ago freed themselves from bottled spirits, they are not going to be shackled by the spectral, haunting kind.
"We feel more enthusiastic than ever," Knight said. "At times with Best Mate, we felt we could not go on. But I was 60 last week and don't anticipate giving up for ages. We have some lovely young horses. Of course, Best Mate gave us five amazing years. He put this little yard on the map. Nobody would have heard of us without him - not of me, anyway. People seeing us at the races used to say: 'Look, that's Terry Biddlecombe'. Nobody knew who I was. But now they say: 'Who's that old bald thing with Henrietta Knight?"
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