Racing: 'Maybe one day they'll know who I am, that I actually train the horses.' Now we know

The Interview - Henrietta Knight: The Knight they call Hen has won her race for recognition. Nick Townsend visits Best Mate's trainer who is guided by a fear of the worst
Click to follow
The Independent Online

West Lockinge Farm, on the Berkshire Downs, may be home to the nation's most celebrated racehorse but it still retains much of its original identity. Ducks and geese bathe on a pond in the centre of what was once the farmyard. Also, above the cacophony of their splashing and quacking, you notice two cockerels fighting. And not just a squabble, either. Even to the untutored eye, it looks like a serious contretemps.

Oblivious to this spat, Henrietta Knight has retreated to the conservatory of her home, where we are seated discussing her best mate, husband and partner, Terry Biddlecombe, the former champion jockey, and their Best Mate, the two-times Cheltenham Gold Cup victor. For some reason, the situation reminds you just a little of that lament by the late Princess of Wales: "There are three of us in this marriage..." Except in this case the equine "other man" in his wife's life, known as "Matey", is regarded as affectionately by Biddlecombe as by Knight herself.

The former is out in the yard, checking on their charges, and these days there are more than 70 of them. Normally, he gives her instant reports on individuals via mobile phone. This time, he saunters in. Doesn't shake hands. They are covered with blood. Apparently, he has discovered the cockerels; one victorious, one seriously wounded. He has just wrung the neck of the loser. "One's practically killed the other. I had to finish him off. Still, it was a mangy little fucker. Never liked him much anyway." He pauses, then adds with mock scorn: "Fighting over a woman. Bloody typical. Soon as he'd won, the winner went over and gave one to one of the females."

It is typical of Biddlecombe, too. Irreverent, blunt, liberal with four-letter expressions, and about as lacking in political correctness as you are likely to encounter, though thoroughly endearing for all that. The rough cock to her Hen, as she is known. On the surface, he is the antithesis of this former debutante and daughter of a farmer and major in the Coldstream Guards, who won the Victoria Cross in the Second World War. And yet, for all her own undoubted strength of character, if ever a man made a timely arrival in Henrietta Knight's life it was Terry Biddlecombe.

For Knight, these are exhilarating times; anxious times. Eight months on from Best Mate's second Cheltenham Festival triumph, she has just published her version of his story*, from the moment he was born "on a carpet of wet snow" in a field in County Meath in January, 1995. It is meticulously researched and, as one would expect, considering that it was produced with the assistance of this newspaper's former chief sports writer, Andrew Longmore, highly readable. It is all part of the equine celebrity that Best Mate has become - he has his own website and range of memorabilia, including a "talking" greetings card, - and which has been reflected in his trainer's much-heightened profile.

But now it is time to begin Best Mate's racecourse preparations for a third Gold Cup. Both Knight and Biddlecombe are convinced their equine idol is stronger than ever. "He looks magnificent," she says.

The eight-year-old, owned by retired businessman Jim Lewis, is no more than 6-4 for a third Gold Cup, and you suspect it is only misfortune on the day that will deny him. "He's so good and finds it so easy, sometimes you think he might get too blasé and think he knows it all and take chances," agrees Knight.

Like last year, Huntingdon's Peterborough Chase next Saturday will represent his seasonal debut. Then Kempton and the King George VI on Boxing Day. Ground permitting, in both cases. The drought has done its damage, and considerable water is necessary to repair it. "At Huntingdon, if we get a bit of rain, there should be perfect ground," she says. "But if they still call it 'good to firm', I won't run Best Mate. The trouble is, there's nowhere else to go."

Knight is worried, too, about the going at Kempton. "It'll have to improve a lot. I'll probably enter him for that Leopardstown race as well on Boxing Day." Ever the pessimist, she insists that the King George will provide some tough opposition, who could include the French chaser Jair du Cochet, La Landiere, Valley Henry and First Gold. "They could all easily beat Best Mate."

Not if the horse's regular partner, Jim Culloty, can help it. He was suspended for the race in 2001 and injured last year, so this would be his first King George ride on Best Mate. Tony McCoy deputised, but lost narrowly on the first occasion. Both jockey and trainer attributed the defeat to the other. McCoy claimed later that "if he'd [Best Mate] have been trained by Martin Pipe he would have won".

Knight maintains: "Tony McCoy's at his best when he's on a horse that needs forceful riding. Tony likes to dominate. He can't help it. Best Mate's sire is Un Desperado, and some of his stock are very sensitive. You have to handle them with care. You have to let Best Mate think he is in charge. Jim's way of riding is the opposite. He sits very quiet on a horse." And if Culloty was not available again? "I'd use Tony," says Knight. "I'd have to, because he does at least know the horse."

Knight, who had taught history and biology at St Mary's Wantage before gaining her training licence in 1989, concedes that at one time some jockeys took advantage of the fact that, though she was highly knowledgeable about horses, having run a livery yard and been a three-day eventer and huntswoman, she had never ridden in a race.

"When I started out, I think everyone just thought, 'Oh, here's another woman dabbling in a man's world'," she says. "There was a lot of pressure on me when things went wrong in the first few years. That's what drove me to have some good swigs of wine at night to try and drown my sorrows. What I really needed was to have someone else to discuss it with, and try to share the burden." That person was the bellicose Biddlecombe.

She still recalls with embarrassment the day they first met, when he came down with a Central TV crew in 1985 to film her then livery yard. "I was standing there in this ridiculous flimsy blue dress and high heels and Terry was typical Terry... slapped me on the bottom, even though I'd never met him before. I don't think I made much impression on him, though."

They didn't encounter each other again until eight years later. In the meantime, he had resolved a number of personal problems, including alcoholism. "I'd always admired him as a rider and he came to the yard and made some very interesting comments about some of my horses," recalls Knight. "I could see he could be quite useful. So I kept him here."

Both now teetotal, the pair complement each other admirably. Many years after she left the classroom, she retains a slightly schoolmarmish manner. A neighbouring trainer, Mick Channon, calls in with his gelding Tusk, whom he wants to introduce to hurdling in their enclosed jumping school. Your correspondent accompanies them. Afterwards she asks: "So, have you learnt something today, Nick?" It makes you feel about 12 again.

At last it's Knight who is receiving more of the attention, though. "It took a long time before the public knew who I was at all. When he first used to come racing with me, all I could hear people saying was: 'There's Terry Biddlecombe'. I used to say, 'One day, Terry, maybe they'll know who I am. That I actually train these horses'."

There was no doubting that once Best Mate had secured his first Gold Cup victory - a race, like all the other major ones in which her horses participate, that she didn't permit herself to watch live. Usually, she is secreted away in somewhere like a press tent or a Tote Credit office. "I have two fears: one that the horse will get hurt, and two that the horse will let down his supporters," she says. "When so much is expected of a horse, you just dread something going wrong."

Now that sense of apprehension is beginning to awake inside her again. "You just can't get away from it. You're acutely aware of having a responsibility to this horse and to the public," she says. "Last year, in the build-up to Cheltenham, it really did get to me. I put on two stone, though I've taken it off again, I'm glad to say, this summer. I took on Jenny Pitman's ex-personal trainer. When I'm worried, I eat so much. I don't know how I got into my blue suit for the Festival. It was bursting at the seams. In fact, one button did pop off."

She adds: "I can switch off more now. But I still worry - even about the Peterborough Chase on Saturday. I've been worried about that for months. It's fine all this great publicity Best Mate's had. Now he's got to go out and prove just how good he is once again."

Under Henrietta Knight's guidance, who would argue against Best Mate ascending to legendary status?

'Best Mate: Chasing Gold' by Henrietta Knight (Highdown, £17.99)

Biography: Henrietta Knight

Born: 15 December 1946.

Base: Wantage, Oxfordshire.

Career: Former biology teacher's equine interests began in eventing. Started training in 1989, assisted by husband and former champion jockey Terry Biddlecombe.

Record: Cheltenham Festival wins, 5. 2002-03 wins 43. 2001-02 wins 48. 2000-01 wins 39. 1999-2000 wins 42.

Stable stars: Best Mate (two Cheltenham Gold Cups and King George VI Chase) and Edredon Bleu.

Main jockey: Jim Culloty.

Also: First Festival win with Karshi, owned by brother-in-law Lord Vestey. But owner Jim Lewis has provided most of the glory days.