Racing: The morning after the tears of victory: racing's Odd Couple go in search of a new Best Mate

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While her equine prodigy Best Mate is this weekend starting a holiday, munching hay and oats while basking in popular adulation, Henrietta Knight will be engaged in business as usual - a visit to a muddy field in the west of Ireland.

While her equine prodigy Best Mate is this weekend starting a holiday, munching hay and oats while basking in popular adulation, Henrietta Knight will be engaged in business as usual - a visit to a muddy field in the west of Ireland.

The 57-year-old trainer of the horse which this week entered the annals of racing by winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the third year in a row will leave behind the tumult of television cameras and trophies to return to the spot where five years ago she bought a promising yet untested steeplechaser by the name of Best Mate.

But the journey to the town of Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare will not be a romantic pilgrimage to pay homage to her stellar steed. Instead she will be visiting the paddock of Tom Costello, the Irish farmer and steeplechasing guru who has raised six Gold Cup winners - in search of a potential successor.

Those who know the former debutante and convent school biology teacher say such dedication to purpose is typical of Henrietta Knight - a woman who battled for years to make her mark in a sport dominated by men.

Speaking yesterday at her racing yard in the village of West Lockinge, near Wantage, Oxfordshire, she said: "I'm afraid you can't be sentimental in this business. There is a particular horse that we're interested in and you have to be constantly aware of new opportunities."

Amid the ducks and geese that populate the yard in rolling countryside, this unending search for new challenges in the unpredictable world of thoroughbred training is regarded by Mrs Knight's competitors as much of the secret of her success. As one trainer put it: "You won't find anyone who takes so much care to know her horses. She has this ability to spot the jewel in any paddock of muddy also-rans."

The triumph of this rosy-faced daughter of an Army officer who stood his offspring to attention on the family lawn is all the more remarkable given her lack of grounding in the turf world and her battle to step back from the brink of alcoholism. Indeed, the hard graft of racehorse training , where she gets up at 5.30am and takes a part in all tasks from mucking out to writing the entry forms for each race, was an unusual choice for a woman truly to the manor born.

Henrietta's youth was spent in illustrious circles. She came out at as a debutante at Queen Charlotte's birthday ball at Grosvenor House in 1968. Her mother, Hester, counted the Queen Mother among the mourners at her funeral; while her father, Guy, a major in the Coldstream Guards, won the Military Cross in the Second World War; and he did not let the fact that he had two daughters prevent him from putting his children through military-style drills in the garden.

But rather than settling down to life as an upper-class consort, Henrietta trained as a teacher, gaining a position as a biology mistress at a convent school in Wantage. Her enthusiasm for horses was expressed not through skittish thoroughbreds but the cut-glass accented world of three-day eventing. She once came 12th at the Badminton horse trials but in the end chose to set up her own livery yard and started training point-to-point steeplechasers in 1989 - without having ridden in a single race.

Her voice fading with the fatigue of events at 3.15pm on Thursday, when she retired to the press tent on the race course to watch the Cheltenham Gold Cup - one of around a dozen steps, such as hiring the same horse box and driver, taken out of superstition to recreate the circumstances of her two previous victories - Henrietta Knight said: "When I started training, it was a man's world and it's just as well that I've always been a hard worker. My family weren't in racing and I've come from the bottom up, doing all the jobs in the yard. Let's just say I don't think I've been able to cut many corners to get where I am today."

It was an intense struggle for survival which she admits drove her to drink. She told The Independent last year: "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 to drown my sorrows."

What brought her back from the edge of self-destruction was her relationship with a recovering alcoholic, Terry Biddlecombe, a hard-drinking former champion jockey with a bluff manner and fondness for earthy language. The couple met initially when Mr Biddlecombe, 62, gave Henrietta some advice on a visit to her yard, moved in and subsequently married her. In the words of Mrs Knight, he was "someone to share the burden".

The contrasting backgrounds of the pair, who are teetotallers, has earned them the universal epithet in racing circles of the Odd Couple.

But having consigned the demons of drink to the past, their sporting partnership has not looked back, with 70 horses now populating her West Lockinge yard, among them the triple champion Best Mate.

Whether her trip this weekend to Newmarket-on-Fergus, supposedly named by a landlord hoping to create a horseracing centre to rival its English namesake, will yield another Best Mate remains to be seen.

But despite having had little more than two hours sleep for the previous two nights, Miss Knight was adamant that unlike her horse, there would be no immediate respite. She said: "I am very bad at relaxing. I am always running around doing things. Last year I decided to write a book. Even after the excitement of this week, it isn't very long before I am worrying about next year's race."

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