Best mates discover true friends amid adversity

Henrietta Knight has endured a steep decline since the days of her triple Gold Cup winner but returns to the Festival with hope undimmed, she tells Chris McGrath

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The Independent Online

The clock on the conservatory wall has stopped; so, too, one in a little tower gazing over the intimate sprawl of barns and stabling at West Lockinge Farm. But it is not yet time, thank heavens, to put out the stars and pack up the moon.

There was a terrible moment five months ago, admittedly, when Henrietta Knight feared she had lost her north, her south, her east and west. As always, she had got up at half past five to feed the horses, leaving her husband in bed. Terry Biddlecombe's hands were now so arthritic that he could no longer unlatch the stable doors. Only this time, when the horses were tacked up at seven, she saw that their bedroom windows remained dark.

"It was pretty frightening, finding him unconscious on the bed," Knight recalls. "I did think I'd lost him, for a minute. His eyes were rolling, I couldn't get any sense out of him at all. [Jockey] Dominic Elsworth was here, we were about to go off and gallop horses at Mick Channon's. I said: 'I can't go, Terry's practically out of it.' And Dominic was brilliant, he just took over. He was so helpful over the next three weeks."

On Thursday all three convene at Cheltenham with a renewed sense of gratitude. Biddlecombe has recovered sufficiently from his stroke to offer Elsworth any last-minute riding instructions, evoked by Festivals past – whether from winning the 1967 Gold Cup on Woodland Venture, or helping Knight prepare Best Mate for the first of three wins in the same race, 10 years ago this week.

As the frozen clocks might imply, however, time has rather stood still since the day Best Mate dropped dead at Exeter in 2005. Somersby, the horse vested with the stable's renewal in the Ryanair Chase, himself won only once in 11 starts before finally getting back on track at Ascot in January. True, his performance that day reiterated that Knight's stable had suddenly turned a corner. Six winners in January, in fact, was one more than she had managed in the whole of 2011. On the final day of the year one of her horses had been deprived of certain victory at Warwick, balked by a loose runner. Knight wondered if she would ever have another winner. Then, on New Year's Day, she saddled Calgary Bay to win at Cheltenham and he is now being trained for the John Smith's Grand National itself.

The overall trend, however, remains dispiriting. Not so long ago, more than 80 horses were stabled here in the lee of the Oxfordshire Downs. This season, Knight has run 32. But the indignity of her position is not her own. The true embarrassment is sooner to a sport so enslaved to fashion that even Jim Lewis, for whom she found and trained not just Best Mate, but Edredon Bleu, nowadays sends his horses to Paul Nicholls.

"There was always going to be a slide after Best Mate had gone," Knight says. "But we didn't expect Jim Lewis to slide off as well. It's very fickle, racing. If you haven't a good horse, they forget you tomorrow. I do think it has become a less pleasant environment. It seemed a lot more fun when we started. Everybody was in it together in those days. Maybe I've just got older. But other people say the same. There's a different type of owner now, and a lot of them don't understand horses."

During the good times, everyone claimed a share in the serendipitous delight an ex-school-ma'am and reformed hell-raiser had discovered in each other. But the sport could not match Knight and Biddlecombe for fidelity. After such a betrayal, how has she managed to avoid resentment?

"I haven't," she says simply. "I am bitter about Jim Lewis, certainly. I think he's behaved very badly. Loyalty's gone out of the window, as far as he's concerned. You can't win all those races and just turn your back. But I think he liked being centre of attention."

What makes the situation especially poignant is the way all top trainers – including Nicholls, for whom Knight stresses her regard – nowadays apply as orthodoxy the very strategy that once earned Knight such hostility. By campaigning Best Mate so sparingly, between Festivals, Knight showed how to achieve precisely the longevity now so celebrated in Kauto Star.

"They said we were crazy," she remembers. "That it wasn't fair on the public. We had to gauge how good the horse was, by running in the same races Arkle used to run in. If we'd done that, we'd never have got him to Cheltenham. He was quite a fragile horse, in many ways. He had very good limbs, but he was delicate in that he didn't take his races that well. If we'd raced and raced him, we'd have finished him. He had to be absolutely sparkling fresh. Now, of course, they're all doing exactly the same."

Knight has been a victim of that patience in another respect, too. She would love to be sent some more precocious horses. After all, she once won the big juvenile hurdle at Aintree. But her own skills, and a long association with the Costello academy in Co Clare, leave her best known for those traditional steeplechasing types that require a resource still less common, even in a recession, than money.

"The biggest spender won't necessarily get the best horse," she explains. "But only provided you're prepared to wait. We get lovely young horses but they do need time. Owners have to be terribly patient, waiting for those years to tick by. We saw a beautiful horse in Ireland recently. But it's very hard to find someone to whom you can say: 'We think that's a champion in the making – in two years' time.' So we had to leave him behind."

Always a smasher, physically, Somersby himself is a typical model. The public has certainly not forgotten Knight, and deep emotions are guaranteed if his physical maturity could restore her to the Festival limelight. Biddlecombe, like his old pal Josh Gifford, has always had the ready sentimentality of one whose toughness is beyond question. He was shattered by Gifford's death, a few weeks ago, so soon after his own crisis. By all accounts, however, he is back in vintage form, his anecdotes as ribald as ever. And, of course, the experience has placed in due perspective even the perfidy of a sport that professed such affection for the stars of its very own screwball comedy.

"There were young men in their twenties in the stroke unit with Terry," Knight notes. "My own sister had a stroke 19 years ago. She was unconscious for eight weeks, in intensive care, with all these tubes coming out of her. They said: 'If she lives, she'll never walk or talk again.' And she does both."

It is not just the horses, after all, that can make each day precious. Knight wonders about doing some writing. "I don't think I'd be much good at a novel," she says. "All that sex you'd have to put into it. But I could do something with all the stories Terry is coming out with how. That will have to wait, I suppose, because one or two concern people who are still alive. I can't complain, though. I've seen a real slice of things. And I've plenty to do. I breed Connemara ponies now, and there's the farm, too. But I would like a few more horses to train. In the old days, if one went wrong, the owner would say: 'Well, I'll buy another one'. That doesn't happen any more. All we can do is hang on to what we've got. We'll never change it now. You can only hope that out of the small pool of horses you can get together, you find one or two good ones. So, yes, it would be particularly sweet to win a good race now."

There will never be any self-pity, mind, or histrionics. Horses have taught Knight a better creed than people who cannot show faith in each other. "Life can be so cruel, the unjust things that happen to people," she shrugs. "I was interviewed pretty quickly after Best Mate died, and everyone said: 'Why weren't you in floods?' Some people behaved appallingly on the day, Jim Lewis was an absolute mess. You've just got to pull yourself together and say: 'Well, it's happened.' You can only take things forward. Sometimes, when something happens, it can be a terrible shock to the system. But it almost numbs you into being stronger."

If not to the reckless extent of his younger days, Biddlecombe will certainly drink to that. The winners may not flow as they used to, but there are sundials as well as clocks. You do not need to know each second to know the hour.

Novice Flemenstar proves well above Bog standard

It will be a vintage Cheltenham week if it contains many better performances than the one produced by Flemenstar at Naas yesterday. It will be an unusual one, equally, if Bog Warrior's disappointing finish in the same race remains its only anticlimax.

With just one other runner, the race had appeared a match between the two best novice chasers missing the Festival by design rather than accident. Bog Warrior was ultimately eased to a walk in the closing stages, but had been mercilessly stretched by Flemenstar's jumping after the lead changed hands around halfway. His trainer, Peter Casey, will seek a fifth consecutive win from Flemenstar (above) at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting.

On the opening day of the Festival tomorrow, Hurricane Fly faces nine rivals in his defence of the Stan James Champion Hurdle.

Cheltenham countdown: My top fancy for the Festival - Brendan Powell, trainer

"Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase on Wednesday. He only had one piece of work after his wind operation, before he ran at Ascot, and Nicky Henderson was warning he might finish fourth or fifth. He stayed on nicely for second, and he'll be much better going left-handed."

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap: Drumshambo (4.10 Stratford)

Travelled strongly through a better race last time.


Next best: Gambo (2.50 Taunton)

Got his act together on his reappearance, looking ready for this distance.


One to watch: Zafaraban (Seamus Mullins) closed from the rear for third at Wincanton on Thursday, clear of the pack.


Where the money's going: Montbazon is 8-1 from 10-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham tomorrow.