Chris McGrath: Through good times and bad, they're still the best of mates
Inside Track: Since her triple Gold Cup winner, Henrietta Knight has had little success – but she's sending a new star to Cheltenham
Saturday 13 March 2010
Outside the farmhouse conservatory, in a walled garden, seven ducklings are struggling to follow their mother up some steps. Hatched only the previous day, they tumble and roll in slapstick panic.
Henrietta Knight stoops to help them, and they scurry after mother, who leads them away with an exasperated waddle. Knight smiles indulgently. Her whole vocation, after all, is about patience with Nature's awkward breakthroughs.
Patience, sadly, is an expensive commodity with steeplechasers. But Knight has been dismayed to discover quite how scarce it has become since the days of Best Mate. Next week, she returns to Cheltenham to see whether Kauto Star can emulate her own champion by winning himself a third Gold Cup – and so extend the dominion of his trainer, Paul Nicholls, who has come to dominate jump racing in the six years since Best Mate last won at the Festival. Even Best Mate's owner, Jim Lewis, sends his horses to Ditcheat nowadays.
Knight is reluctant to dwell on that particular apostasy. It is not her style to be resentful. But she does not deny her surprise to be so suddenly confined to the margins. Last season, she mustered just 15 wins; this time round, the score so far is 10. Crucially, however, these include a couple for her emerging star, Somersby, who could restore her to the Festival winner's enclosure on Tuesday, in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy.
"We don't know how good he is yet," she says. "But he's the best we've had since Best Mate. Of course, I'd love to have more horses. But we just have to weather the storm and, hopefully, the young ones will come through. I think people thought Best Mate was a bit of a freak, a one-off: 'OK, she's had her good horse, he's gone. She's unlikely to have another one, let's go somewhere else.' But we did have other good horses, too, the Edredon Bleus and so on."
Returning to West Lockinge Farm, near Wantage, it is hard to resist a sense of communal shame on the sport's behalf. When Best Mate was here, Knight and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, enchanted the racing public with the incongruous mooring they had discovered in each other – the staid, unfulfilled ex-schoolma'am and the rasping former champion jockey, who had quit the bottle and needed fresh succour.
And, lest we forget, Nicholls himself has borrowed Knight's example. She campaigned Best Mate so sparingly between Gold Cups that she turned circumspection itself into a form of boldness. There was impatience from some, but it worked, and now Nicholls brings both Kauto Star and Denman to the Festival with just two runs apiece this season.
But the authors of this approach have been almost forgotten. In those days they would always be seen at point-to-points in Ireland, seeking another Best Mate. Last Sunday, they went back for the first time in two years. "Talking to all the old faces we knew, there's barely been a horse sold out of a point-to-point over there this season," she says. "I did see two lovely horses, but we haven't got anyone to buy them. We didn't even try to negotiate."
Instead, the vogue is for precocious French imports, a market in which Knight confesses herself uncomfortable. Somersby, in contrast, was bought as a raw three-year-old from the Costello family's celebrated nursery in Co Clare. "Horses like that aren't going to do very much until they're five or six, and there aren't many owners now, like the Radford family, patient enough to wait," Knight says.
Somersby first volunteered himself for export by skipping round a loose school with unusual flair. "He was quite amazing," Knight recalls. "Best Mate was just clockwork, fences would just come and go in the same rhythm. It was like virtual racing. This one would have much more scope, he has an enormous jump, and real power. He's still so young and enthusiastic, puts his heart into everything. But he's not the made article yet. Best Mate was a model pupil, whereas this horse is cheeky, goes around with a smile on his face. I hope he's not too exuberant at Cheltenham."
Hence, no doubt, the precaution of keeping him to two miles for now, though Knight is confident he will stay three. Somersby does lack experience, having only contested two steeplechases in small fields, but Knight remembers how he thrived on the hectic Festival environment when third over hurdles last year.
So perhaps he can put them back where they belong, Hen and Terry, and rebuke those who find no place in the form book for eclogues. Some have stood fast. Richard Head drops by to see his horse, and they recall Beau Caprice, a black charger he rode in his army days. Sent to Fulke Walwyn, Beau Caprice won the 1966 Gloucester Hurdle at the Festival – now the Supreme Novices' hurdle – at the age of 12. Head is a viscount now, but Hen and Terry are the same with everybody. They deal in characters, not castes. No doubt that appeals to the monarch, whose silks are drying on a rack, after a not terribly auspicious airing at Stratford the previous day.
Some things,they don't miss. Before he dropped dead at Exeter in November 2005, Best Mate (and his owner) had become a bit of circus. "It got a bit out of hand," Knight agrees. In his pomp, there were 80 horses here, but that, too, began to seem excessive. It was decided that 65 might be more manageable, but now the stable is down to 50.
"I could do with another 10, just to pay overheads," Knight says. "Some of the boxes are empty. But I like challenges. And it's not about one horse, or one race at Cheltenham. It's about the life you're leading, and the satisfaction you get from what you're doing."
With Terry safely out of earshot, she can drop the madcap double act, too. For that satisfaction is doubled now that it can be shared. "I know we bicker like mad on the surface, but basically we get on so well," she admits. "And enjoy what we do. And believe in what we do. He's been incredibly patient. He says life goes on, one day at a time, and it's such a good motto."
They will keep going, then, until age dilutes the pleasure – "maybe another five years". And then there will still be trips to Connemara, alone together on the remote coasts, looking for ponies. Certainly, it no longer pains her to see the Best Mate colours running from another yard. "We've got used to that," she says. "There's no point being bitter. You just feel life changing, and you run the yard in a different way. People are fickle, aren't they? But good luck to them."
Biddlecombe reliably addresses the matter in rather more pungent terms, albeit a brief, parting exchange as he pulls up in a battered truck that cannot be accurately reproduced in a family newspaper. "No loyalty nowadays," he grumbles cheerfully. "Still, she's showed them all how to train these horses."
His knees and hips are wrecked by all those falls, and last year he cracked his pelvis trying to lug some tarmac round the yard. Knight remembers ferrying him through an airport in a wheelchair. It is not a vignette suggestive of a couple inclined to give up. "There was this other poor man alongside him, also in a wheelchair. And Terry turned to him and said: 'Let's have a race!' He was a good sport, and they took off across the airport." And who won? There is a mischievous pause. "Oh, Terry won, all right. But he did take the other man's ground."
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