Racing: Knight's quest bound by bond of sisterhood

Maximize is the December winner of the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser of the Month award, given in association with The Independent
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Maximize, the winner of the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and now among the leading candidates for the Cheltenham Festival, has been underrated by various sources throughout his career.

It is not a mistake which has been replicated by one panel of experts as Henrietta Knight's gelding, probably the first former eventer to win a Grade One contest, has become the second winner of the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser Award, made in association with The Independent.

Maximize has done just what his name suggests with his talent, graduating from the poles, cross-country and Fred Astaire soft-shoe-shuffle dressage of eventing, to become one of the more credible contestants for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase on 13 March, the middle day of the Festival.

Along the way he has proved a source of inspiration for his owner, Lady Vestey, who was struck down by a stroke five years ago. Celia Vestey gets on well with her trainer now that they have stopped fighting over toys. There is just her and Henrietta, and the sisters were brought even closer when they lost their mother, Hester, a friend of the Queen Mother, at the end of November. She died following an accident at her Lockinge Manor home, close to her elder daughter's yard, having been found at the bottom of the stairs. She was 80.

On the same day, Maximize was part of a poignant treble which also included Knight's favourite horse, Red Blazer, and Stars Out Tonight.

"The horse gives my sister a lot of pleasure," Knight said yesterday. "She was quite ill about five years ago when she had this brain haemorrhage and my brother-in-law [Lord Vestey, the Chairman at Cheltenham] gave her an interest in event horses so that she had something to do. She can't ride like she used to.

"Racing is first and foremost for her and it is quite moving for us that she has now got a horse she can see competing at Cheltenham. It's a bit of a fairy story and she's getting very excited about Cheltenham."

Knight uses the plural because the partnership at West Lockinge Farm also includes her husband, Terry Biddlecombe. While some spouses like to present bouquets and confectionery to their wives, Terrence prefers to bring attitude. He is very rude to "Hen", but she can hold her own. While he calls her alternatively "it" or "the barren mare", she has been known to toss him bottles of Miracle-Gro and suggest he applies it below belt level.

The couple do, however, tend to agree on horses and they do tend to get it right. Maximize, in fact, is a rare exception, a gelding who has outperformed Biddlecombe's description of him as "the slow event horse".

The son of Mandalus first started playing a part in this story when he was bought by Lady Vestey for 10,000 guineas at Doncaster in May 1998. He was sent to Ian Stark, the Scottish three-day eventer who earned his passage to five Olympics, also a regular beneficiary of Celia's horses. At Sydney, Stark was seen aboard the owner's Arakai in the individual three-day event.

He initially noticed that Maximize possessed a nice temperament and was a good jumper. Then he discovered he was rather fast for an eventer.

Last spring, Maximize was thrown into his maiden point-to-point. He won it and at that time £20,000 would easily have secured him. Potential purchasers came and left and only Knight knows who they are. The visitors themselves must be too ashamed to advertise their folly. The eight-year-old would be valued at around £200,000 now that he has the Festival in his headlights.

Yet even Knight is loath to heap easy credit on the family pet. "Once we started chasing him and once we got the distance right, he has started going from strength to strength," she said. "I promise you he's not a fast horse, but he can gallop throughout the race and he jumps very well. In novice events jumping is very important as just one mistake can knock 10 or 20 lengths out of you.

"I think his experience will come into play at Cheltenham. He's done so much jumping and has had a very good grounding from a top three-day event rider.

"He's very good on corners, he nips round them. He pinches lengths here and there to counteract his lack of speed. And he won't give up without a fight. He's very genuine."

Maximize, or Max as he is known within the stable, has now compiled a record of three victories from five starts this season, and he finished runner-up on the other two occasions.

The final proof that he was not just a three-trick eventing horse came at Kempton, where his much-honed vaulting skills came into play. That was certainly a much more powerful force then confidence from his own camp.

"I told Tony McCoy that he was under no pressure at all," Knight said, "that all the horse did was gallop and jump and so he should go out and just enjoy himself. There were seven runners and prize-money down to sixth and I told Tony if he had got any of those my sister would have been delighted. She still is."