WHO has enjoyed the most recent winner at the Cheltenham Festival – jump jockey Dominic Elsworth or top trainer Henrietta Knight?
Given the former’s career-threatening concussion injury that kept him sidelined for 14 months, and Knight’s association with three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate, most people would put their money on the latter.
It is indicative of the trainer’s struggles since those glorious days with the late, great Best Mate that the Yorkshire rider’s Festival success – on Mister McGoldrick in 2008 – is the most recent triumph achieved by either individual at jump racing’s Olympics.
However, judging by Calgary Bay’s stirring New Year’s Day victory at Cheltenham, and Somersby’s eye-catching fourth place finish in Kauto Star’s historic fifth King George VI Chase win, both Elsworth and Knight can look forward to 2012 with considerable optimism.
Calgary Bay, a likely Grand National contender, could reappear in Doncaster’s Sky Bet Chase on January 28 and the high-class Somersby will take in Ascot’s prestigious Victor Chandler Chase a week previously before being aimed at the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Incredibly, Calgary Bay was only Knight’s fourth winner of a frustrating campaign – there have been 10 seconds, she is quick to point out as she reflects on her luckless spell.
One had come on New Year’s Eve at Warwick when Glens Boy and Timmy Murphy were denied a certain winner by a riderless horse coming from the opposite direction and hampering him within the shadow of the winning post.
“After that, I thought we’d never have a winner again,” ventured Knight, who has also been caring for her husband, former champion jockey Terry Biddlecombe, as he recovers from a stroke.
“2012, it can’t be any worse than last year, can it? Calgary Bay was superb, capturing the big race at Cheltenham. He jumped really well with Dominic and won with his ears pricked. It was very exciting and a welcome tonic after a long string of seconds.
“Things have been pretty tough but Calgary Bay deserved his win because he has been there or thereabouts for a long time without winning.
“Dominic then rode Silver Roque to victory for us at Folkestone on the Monday afterwards and Terry was there, which was nice.
“Dominic is a very good horseman, and it’s fortunate that he’s back from his injury. He understands horses, he’s good to work with and the owners like him.
“Horses like Best Mate, you have to remember, are one-offs and we were fortunate to have him.”
Knight is not the only person belatedly breaking free from the doldrums – Guiseley-born Elsworth has been slowly rebuilding his career after a crashing fall at Ffos Las left him on the sidelines for 14 months with a career-threatening concussion head injury until he made a comeback in October, 2010.
While he is the first to admit that he would like more winners (just like every jockey, including his great friend AP McCoy), his current tally of 22 for the season is already five more than the 17 triumphs he recorded in his 2010-11 comeback year.
His poise in the saddle on the giant Calgary Bay, who runs in the colours of Lincolnshire-based owner Camilla Radford, was a sight to behold as the runners came hurtling down the Cheltenham hill in the New Year’s Day feature.
Horse and jockey were at one, gaining ground over their rivals at every obstacle, before having sufficient reserves left after the final fence to repel the fast finishing Hector’s Choice.
“He did it very nicely, didn’t he?” said an elated Elsworth, who flourished on the Yorkshire pony circuit before serving his riding apprenticeship at Sue and Harvey Smith’s Bingley yard.
“He’s always been a horse who a lot of people have rated, I rode him before my lay-off, and one of his main attributes is his jumping.
“I think he is a National horse. I know that he fell at the fourth last year, but sometimes it can take a race at Aintree before a horse adapts. I hope that’s the case with him.”
As for Somersby, Elsworth is still marvelling at being part of an epic King George – an early contender for race of the decade – even though a rematch with Kauto Star and Long Run is not on the cards as Knight favours the Ryanair Chase, over two miles and five furlong, to the blue riband three-and-a-quarter-mile Gold Cup at the National Hunt Festival.
“It was a wonderful race, even though one was initially disappointed that Somersby was just out of the first three,” said the jockey, who named Paul Webber’s novice chaser Alasi, a winner on Thursday at Ludlow, as a horse to follow in 2012.
“To see Kauto Star come back after being written off, and then ridden in front of the stands, it was the place to be. There was such a buzz – it was a privilege that I wouldn’t have missed. Somersby is a good horse and his day may, hopefully, still come.”
Given Elsworth readily concedes he will not become champion jockey, his focus – in the second half of his career – is to focus on securing rides in the best quality races.
In Knight, whose yard was hit hard by the death of Best Mate in 2005 and the retirement of the Champion Chase and King George winner Edredon Bleu, Elsworth has the ideal trainer to operate with.
Like the proud Yorkshireman, the one-time teacher relishes the steeplechasing game and clearly relishes adding to her Festival tally – indeed horse-of-a-lifetime Best Mate’s historic third successive Gold Cup in 2004 was her last such triumph at the career-defining meeting.
It is one reason why she, and Elsworth, are working so closely with horse guru Yogi Breisner – the man who transformed Long Run’s jumping last season.
“We do a lot of schooling with Yogi, which is good,” added Elsworth, who will, forever, be associated with the recently retired Mister McGoldrick.
“Hen’s horses are always good jumpers, but you have to put the work in. I’m also learning a lot from Yogi.
“In this game, if they don’t jump, they don’t win.
“With horses you just don’t stop learning – and Hen is still one of the best.
“To train one Gold Cup winner is difficult enough, to win it three years on the bounce with the same horse, well it’s almost unbelievable.
“She’s very popular, that was clear at Cheltenham with Calgary Bay and it would be nice to win a very big race on him or Somersby or, hopefully, both.
“I had a taste of it with Mister McGoldrick in the Racing Post Plate. He’s a horse I grew up with – and taught me a lot.
“Some more wins like that, and staying healthy, that’ll do me this year.”