Racing: Knight feels a growing burden of expectation

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The Independent Online

The twitching hour has arrived at West Lockinge Farm as an increasingly fractious Henrietta Knight points Best Mate at his date with destiny a fortnight today.

The twitching hour has arrived at West Lockinge Farm as an increasingly fractious Henrietta Knight points Best Mate at his date with destiny a fortnight today.

The Oxfordshire trainer has come a long way since revitalising a retired chaser called Rowland Ward, owned by her mother, to win the members' race at the 1964 Old Berkshire Hunt point-to-point at Lockinge. But only recently has the gravity of expectation begun to depress her shoulders.

Knight has lost a stone, some of it from her fingernails, as she contemplates supervising the first horse since Arkle in 1966 to complete a hat-trick of Cheltenham Gold Cup victories. "The pressure is worse this year," the 57-year-old trainer admitted yesterday. "It's been quite a strain. The thought of getting beaten is horrendous. It's just so important to me that we get him there right.

"I'm a lot more nervous this time. The days seem to be dragging a bit and I'm definitely more on edge. Maybe it's because of the dry weather and there's not much going on and other horses to take my mind off it. Everything seems to be focussing on the one horse and the one race."

Best Mate accomplished two light canters yesterday, after which he squealed and bucked his contentment. Next week he will leave the ground in the company of his regular jockey, Jim Culloty, over a couple of fences. The programme will faithfully match those of the last two years. "We're trying to do just about everything the same because it's a formula that works," Knight said.

That will mean placing bets on Best Mate's rivals and probably watching the Blue Riband from the small press tent by the side of the Prestbury Park weighing room. What has changed over the years is Knight's anonymity on Gold Cup day. It no longer exists.

"In the past I used to wander around the [racecourse] shops, but I can't do that any more because people keep coming up to me," she said. "There's no peace at all any more. I can't buy anything. The shops used to be a good bolt hole to get away from everybody, but they know me now. With the higher profile with this horse I can't escape."

It was hard to reconcile Knight's worries when the magnificent shape of Best Mate appeared in a paddock next to her farmhouse yesterday. He was tall, he was sleek and he appeared almost cocky. His neck was arched, as was his tail, and he was so flustered by his many visitors that he lazily bent down to have a nibble of grass.

"I don't compare him with Arkle or Golden Miller or any of those horses from the past. You mustn't look back too much," Knight said. "He's naturally a bit different. He has an air, a way, about him and a wonderful temperament. You must be able to handle the big day and he can."

Terry Biddlecombe, the trainer's husband, may, in character, be the sandpaper to her satin, but the couple are united in their respect for this horse. "I think he is probably stronger this year, that he has come on about 10lb," the former champion jockey said.

"If he runs like he did last year he'll win. If he runs like he did at Leopardstown last time [in the Ericsson Chase], he'll definitely win. That was the most perfect round of jumping I've ever seen.

"This is a wonderful specimen of a horse. He could have been an eventer, a show-jumper or even a hunter for me. He tries to hit me in the morning. He's a bugger. He tries to bite me. But that's all right because you need to be a bit of a character. He waits there for his breakfast, unlike some other horses, who follow you round even though the feed goes in the same basin seven days a week."

And when it comes to breakfasts on 18 March, Biddlecombe hopes Best Mate will extend his to the afternoon and opponents will be on the menu.