Best Mate’s three successive Gold Cup wins put Henrietta Knight on the map as a trainer. But, as Carl Livesey discovers, her retirement does not mean an end to her involvement with the sport.
Henrietta Knight is looking forward to the future, which will include a link-up with Mick Channon, after announcing her retirement from the training ranks.
The three-time Gold Cup-winning trainer, 65, will give up her National Hunt licence to spend more time with her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, who suffered a stroke last October.
Knight will forever be remembered for her expert handling of Best Mate, who won three consecutive Gold Cups at the Cheltenham Festival between 2002-04.
The majority of her string will join the West Ilsley stables of Channon, her close friend and neighbour.
Knight said: “After much deliberation, and largely due to my husband Terry Biddlecombe’s continued ill health, I have decided to hand in my trainer’s licence.
“I have been incredibly lucky to have experienced some wonderful moments since I first began training in 1989.”
Based in Wantage, Oxfordshire, Knight saddled over 700 winners, beginning training in July 1989 and securing her first winner, The Grey Gunner, at Bangor a month later. Despite her defining association with Best Mate, Knight was also responsible for Edredon Bleu, who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2000 and the King George VI Chase at Kempton in 2003.
The tough chaser also claimed four renewals of the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon between 1998 and 2001 during a brilliant career.
Other significant horses in Knight’s care include Impek, Racing Demon and, most recently, Somersby, who provided the trainer with her last Grade One winner in the Victor Chandler Chase in January.
She said: “I hope that this change will mark the beginning of a new era and I am looking forward to continuing to handle the horses until they move to West Ilsley for their races.
“My gallop, schooling fences and loose jumping school will have plenty of use and other new projects are already in the pipeline. There are exciting days ahead.”
Best Mate’s breathless rise took Knight to a new level and put her upon a pedestal with the racing public.
In addition to his three Gold Cup wins, the Jim Lewis-owned chaser was also victorious in seven other Graded races, including the King George VI Chase at Kempton in 2002.
He died on the racecourse in November 2005 when suffering a heart attack during the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
Knight said the time was right to announce her retirement.
She added: “Terry hasn’t been terribly well and he had a stroke last autumn and doesn’t get around quite as much as he used to. It’s difficult for me to do trips to racing and go away from home.
“Now I’m 65 it’s probably time to hand over to younger people. We’ve had some marvellous times in racing and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. We’ve had some wonderful days.”
Knight pinpointed Best Mate’s Gold Cup hat-trick as an obvious pinnacle of her career, but also underlined the achievements of Edredon Bleu.
She said: “The highlight has to be Best Mate’s third Gold Cup – that was a huge thrill. Edredon Bleu winning the Champion Chase in 2000 with AP (McCoy), that was great.
“I will actually ready them for their races and still have them here with my staff, then they will move up to Mick Channon and Mick’s going to train a few more jumpers next season.
“He and I get on really well and I think it could be an interesting new venture.”
Best Mate’s jockey Jim Culloty, now a trainer himself in Ireland, said: “I had a big link with her and we had some great days together.
“She was a brilliant trainer but all good things come to an end. Terry has been very sick so she’s had plenty on her plate.
“She was a good trainer of some very good horses but the attention to detail that she showed brings with it a lot of stress. There were never that many horses in the yard compared to some but she had some top-class horses.
“Training a horse like Best Mate brought with it a lot of pressure, and if it wasn’t for foot and mouth (2001) he would have been odds-on for an Arkle which would have meant he’d been at Cheltenham five years in a row – that takes some doing.
“I picked up a lot of things from her, obviously. Not one particular thing stands out, but from riding for her for 10 years as a pro and a conditional before that I picked up a lot.
“Her training of Edredon Bleu towards the end of his career was amazing. A couple of times he could have been retired, but she brought him back to win five races in a row culminating in the King George – that was something else.”
Lewis owned Best Mate and Edredon Bleu and was in shock when told the news.
“My first reaction is that it brings to an end an incredible story in jump racing,” he said. “Henrietta, Terry, Jim Culloty and myself are etched into racing history and it can never be erased.
“I know it’s been hard looking after the horses as well as Terry and I really hope they can enjoy retirement together. Best Mate had a huge impact on ordinary people – racing fans. They were taken in by the ‘Odd Couple’, as they were known, but people overlooked their devotion to each other.
“She took some criticism over her handling of Best Mate but she was vindicated and now look at how all the best horses are campaigned – exactly the same. She was a very special trainer who put the horses first and she will always be a part of my family’s life.”