Racing: Knight strives on without incomparable Mate
It was quite enchanting yesterday morning on one piece of Henrietta Knight's trial grounds high up in Oxfordshire, adjacent to the Lockinge point-to-point circuit.
The horses snorted smoke in the three-degree temperature. Impek, the King George VI Chase contender, strained up the substantial gradient as he chased Cruising River.
Racing Demon, the freshly scrubbed new star at West Lockinge Farm, was at the forefront of his work with Only Vintage.
All four are bays, Knight's favourite colouring for a horse, but her favourite bay was missing, even if memories of him remain powerfully redolent all around the yard. It is now 42 days since Best Mate died on a fine afternoon but a bad day at Exeter. The gelding's owner, Jim Lewis, may have thought that was an awful moment, but the fates are really on to him at the moment. Last Thursday his wife, Valerie, passed away.
Best Mate's death remains a raw experience for others among his connections. "It hit us pretty hard that night and for the next few weeks," Knight said. "It still hits us at times. Everything seems to remind you of Best Mate. But life has to go on. The memories are fantastic."
It was a horrible day on which Knight performed serenely when it all went wrong. "When you're dealing with horses you always have to be ready for disaster because anything can happen," she added. "You have to gear yourself up for that.
"I probably heard my mother in my ear telling me to pull myself together. It's hard, but you can't let yourself go on occasions like that. Mummy always said that you mustn't cry in public."
Best Mate's remains were buried at Cheltenham on Saturday and it was another occasion to paw at the emotions. "At the ceremony a little eight-year-old boy came up with a single, yellow rose," Knight said. "He walked all the way across the course on his own to put it on the grave and burst into tears. Something like that is hard to take. That's probably moved me more than anything else."
What the trainer has also had to take is a mountain of correspondence, over 3,000 letters of condolence. "I rashly said that I would reply to them," she said. "With any luck there will be a freeze-up like the old days and we can have a sit down in January and gradually get through them all."
There are other good horses at West Lockinge - most obviously the resurgent Impek - but there are few similarities, pigment apart, with the former prince. "You can't compare other horses with him," Knight added. "He was just a one-off. These others might win plenty of races, but I don't think they'll ever be as good as Best Mate."
Impek, though, is no fool himself. He worked pleasingly yesterday between the cones on the uphill, sunlit gallops in tandem with a familiar face around the place. Jackie Jenner, Best Mate's old lass, has returned to the yard as chauffeur after a spell out of the game. "She wanted to come back but not just to shovel shit," said one of the West Lockinge management team and you might be surprised to learn which one.
Impek could not win a race in seven efforts last season and started this campaign in July, traipsing round at Market Rasen. Summer jump racing appeared to be the summit of his ambition. But then the nine-year-old has previously proved quite adept at bewildering those around him.
Tony McCoy once rode him in a hurdles race at Newbury, where his conveyance wore blinkers and never went a yard. "Tony said he was no good," Knight said, "that we would have to find the gaffiest of gaff tracks to run him and then get out of him."
Now, following the employment of front-running tactics, we have a new animal. Impek has won at Aintree and, most persuasively, last time in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon. Maturity has come late.
"He used to be quite tricky when he was young, but he's a joy to deal with at home now," Knight said. "He seems to be getting stronger and more determined in everything he does. He's grown in confidence as the years have gone by."
If Impek does win the Boxing Day feature at Sandown it will be a remarkable landmark for both Knight and Lewis, who have combined to win the race with Best Mate and Edredon Bleu in recent seasons.
"It will be a very sad day with Jim being there without Valerie," Knight said.
"It would be an emotional moment [if they won]. It would mean a great deal to everybody. I just hope Impek comes back safe and sound." It is not a wish which is fulfilled every time.
NB: Beau Supreme
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