I have been to training yards before but none quite like this one. At first sight it is more Old MacDonald’s Farm than an elite equine operation: ducks flapping and quack-quacking around the pond in front of the main house; hens laying eggs in nooks and crannies; dogs running loose, and horses, seemingly, appearing from everywhere.
The yard is Henrietta Knight’s and the horse I’ve come to see is Best Mate. Both trainer and horse have left an indelible mark on the nation after their exploits at the past two Cheltenham Festivals – Best Mate, powering up the hill to become the first horse since L’Escargot in 1971 to win consecutive Gold Cups, closely followed by Knight’s uninhibited, if less stylish, gallop of joy around the winner’s enclosure into the arms of a tearful Terry Biddlecombe.
It is the face of the former champion jockey, now husband and assistant trainer to Knight, whom I see first. And what a face it is too – memorably described as one that could ‘double up as a relief map of Wessex’. It is ruddy and round and obviously lived in. It is smiling now, though, and I am offered an outstretched, misshapen hand – the result of a fall too many.
‘I’m glad you’re early. We’ve got to go all the way to Newton Abbot. The chase track at Kempton’s like a fucking road!’ The only person that Biddlecombe, apparently, toned down his language for was the late Queen Mother, but getting through two sentences before the first F-word is a respect of sorts.
Knight appears looking rather prim and school mistressy (appearances can be deceptive) and the two of us set off on a tour of the yard. First, we head off to the new £200,000 ecotrack gallop – a gentle right-handed pull uphill for about a mile where we might see a horse or two working out. What we see first is a bright yellow Dobson’s double-decker bus stranded in the middle of an arid field. ‘It’s my sighting post,’ explains Knight. ‘I can see the dip from the top of the bus.’ Her phone is ringing constantly. First it’s Attheraces for a bulletin on Best Mate. Then it’s Biddlecombe who is reporting from another gallop. All horsey talk and trainer speak: ‘Is he fresh?’ ‘Is he sound or lame?’ ‘Did he hang?’ We are still sitting in the double-decker and haven’t seen a horse yet. And then, ‘No, I don’t see a horse at all. I wonder where he’s gone?’
Boldly, I venture that things seem a little chaotic. She shoots me a sharp look.
‘Organised chaos, I like to think.’ Sure enough, as we drive around the estate passing horses walking in pairs, in the golden light of an autumn morning, Knight points every one out, along with their quirks and temperaments, strengths and weaknesses, without recourse to the notes in her lap.
It strikes me that the chaos is central to her success as a trainer. The horses enjoy the natural farmyard atmosphere. They enjoy the fact that this is no regimented training establishment. They settle in, they are given time to mature and they relish the wonderful surrounds of the West Lockinge estate. This is a place where horses are trained, and winners produced, but also where they are looked after. ‘Best Mate thrives here,’ she says, ‘in a way he might not elsewhere.’ Later, as if to confirm the theory, Biddlecombe points to Edredon Bleu, who the previous day had hacked up in the Haldon Chase. ‘At some other yards, he wouldn’t be racing now,’ he says.
I suggest to Knight, with some understatement, that she and Biddlecombe are an odd couple. ‘You’re not the first person to say that, you know. But you’re absolutely right, we are complete opposites and I think that’s why it works.’ Opposites, but with a shared problem in their past: the bottle.
‘Terry hit rock bottom for a while after leaving the saddle. I was training on my own, with no help, and without really noticing I was getting through three bottles of wine a day, often with champagne on top. When we got together, Terry had already dried out with the help of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and he gave me a choice between him and the bottle. Neither of us has had a drop since.’
Here, suddenly, is why the Best Mate story, so well told by Knight in her book Best Mate: Chasing Gold, is an important one. His second Cheltenham triumph may not be the final chapter – Best Mate chases a record-equalling third Gold Cup in March – but it is certainly the climax of what is, in racing and human terms, a genuinely happy and heart-warming tale – without any of the Hollywood schmaltz than accompanies Seabiscuit.
Finally, we come to the part of the yard where the older and better horses are stabled.
Best Mate and Edredon Bleu live next to each other, although the pecking order is clear since Best Mate’s box has more creature comforts – the soft lining on the walls is to prevent him banging his head badly as he did just over a year ago. Edredon Bleu tamely eats Polo-mints out of Knight’s hands. Best Mate is fresh and hard to hold and is controlled by Biddlecombe.
‘They thought I was crackers last year when I said he’d improved by a stone,’ he says. ‘Well, he’s improved again over the summer. Just look at his neck muscles.’ But it is not the neck that stands out; it is the beautiful head, and the way he carries it. This is a horse that knows his status in the yard and revels in it.
There is a strong thread throughout the book that fate brought Knight, Biddlecombe and Best Mate together, each now helping the other to achieve their potential. What else could explain the random set of circumstances that culminated with Biddlecombe being stopped in his tracks at an Irish point-to-point on a wet March afternoon four years ago, when he first saw Best Mate?
Superstition will be paramount in Best Mate’s attempt to emulate Arkle and Cottage Rake as the only horses to win the Gold Cup three times. Like last year, Knight will send him out for just two races beforehand – the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon and the King George at Kempton. Like last year, she will back the opposition ante-post. On the day itself, she will get out her blue suit and lucky pearls and Biddlecombe will dust off his battered old hat. After that, it is in the hands of God, and Jim Culloty. Sunday Telegraph, 9 November 2003