Tributes pour in following death of ‘larger than life’ legend Biddlecombe

AS horse racing mourned Terry Biddlecombe, it is was left to Yorkshire’s Dominic Elsworth to sum up his contribution to the sport of kings: “All men die but not all men live – and, believe me, he lived life to the full.”

Third time totesport Gold Cup winner, Best Mate, with trainer Henrietta Knight and husband, assistant trainer Terry Biddlecombe. (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire).

The 72-year-old was not just one of racing’s legendary figures who became a three-time champion jockey before injury and alcoholism took their toll. More recently, he became a racing institution thanks to Best Mate, who won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups a decade ago under the shrewd tutelage of his wife and soul-mate Henrietta Knight.

And he was a consummate horseman, known as the ‘blonde bomper’ in his riding pomp, who was only too willing to pass on his wisdom to younger riders, like Guiseley-born Elsworth, who partnered Knight’s runners – even when they switched to the yard of former footballer Mick Channon after Biddlecombe suffered a stroke in October 2011.

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Racing’s great double-act of Biddlecombe and Knight, illustrated by the warmth of the pair’s emotional embraces after Best Mate’s Cheltenham victories, became a terrific triumvirate that enjoyed success more recently with horses like Somersby and Sgt Reckless.

It was Elsworth’s good fortune that the first Grade One victory of his career should have been in January 2012 when Somersby won a thrilling Grade One Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot which was made even more emotional by the frail Biddlecombe’s presence at the Berkshire course.

He was still involved in training plans last week before being struck down with a chest infection. News of his death was confirmed on Knight’s Facebook page with a poignant notification that read: “Sadly, Terry died peacefully after breakfast this morning with Henrietta by his side.”

Elsworth told the Yorkshire Post: “Even up to last week, he was involved with the placement of horses. Even though the licence had transferred to Mick in 2012, the horses would still come to Hen’s for their summer holidays and pre-training.

“He was a larger than life character. We would always discuss races and how to ride a horse. Sometimes, as a jockey, you ask if you should have won a race, fired a horse at a fence or sat still. He watched racing every day and was still very sharp mentally and would give you his advice.

“He may have ridden in a different era but the falls and dangers are still the same. He had some great stories about the old days but his advice was always right and greatly appreciated. He would call a spade a spade, and tell you some home truths, but you knew where you stood.

“I was very privileged to have ridden for a champion jockey and one of the sport’s legends. As a jockey, it gave you a lot of confidence that you had his backing and thought you could do the job. If you can ride with that confidence, it makes the job a lot easier.

“That he was there to see Somersby win at Ascot made the win even more special; let’s hope the horse can win another big race in Terry’s memory.”

Biddlecombe, who won the 1967 Gold Cup on Woodland Venture and also rode the Queen Mother’s jumpers with distinction, was one of racing’s great cavaliers – a ruddy-faced individual who was particularly fond of a glass of Champagne on the way to races. This was an era before riders had the benefit of the very best advice on nutrition and such matters.

Personal salvation came in the form of Knight who he married in 1995. Her prim exterior – she was a school-mistress before becoming a widely-respected trainer – masked a wicked sense of humour that she shared with Biddlecombe.

This underpinned their successes with horses like the aforementioned Best Mate, the first horse since Arkle to win three successive Gold Cups, and Edredon Bleu, who won a dramatic Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2000 and the then King George VI Chase at Kempton in the twilight of his career in 2003.

The warmth of this bond was self-evident on Gold Cup day when the superstitious Knight would run out of the marquee where she always endured Best Mate’s races in search of her husband with the TV cameras in pursuit.

She would then embrace Biddlecombe who observed the Gold Cups from his vantage point on the running rail where he reflected on Woodland Venture’s triumph, and the assuredness of Best Mate’s rider Jim Culloty.

“I would rather celebrate his life than mourn his death,” said Culloty, now a successful trainer in Ireland. “The pace at which Terry lived his life, unfortunately he was never going to go on forever. I knew him for 20-odd years and I could write a book about all the things that happened – he was apparently relatively quiet when I knew him. He was a great fellow and a great character. He was larger than life and lived it to the full.”

The many tributes were epitomised by eight-time champion jockey Peter Scudamore who said Biddlecombe was “a real hero who walked with kings and filled the unforgiving minute”.

Meanwhile, 18-time champion jockey AP McVoy said: “I spoke to Hen on Wednesday and I was going to go and see him on Thursday or Friday, but she said he had a bit of a chest infection and I should leave it for a few days. She rang me this morning and said he had sadly passed away very peacefully, which I suppose is a good thing, if there is a good thing.

“He was a great man and had a great life. If he was still here he’d have told you that himself. He came to my party for my 4,000th winner and Henrietta said that was the last time he was out.”

Latter months had taken their toll on Biddlecombe’s health, with Channon observing: “Since the stroke it has been very difficult for everybody, but Hen has been absolutely amazing through it all. They were such a fantastic couple and Hen has been such a devoted carer and wife.”

But Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the BBC’s voice of racing, hoped Biddlecombe would be remembered for “his sense of fun”.

He added: “He was a a man who brightened the game, a lovely character. He was the first of the real swashbuckling riders of his era. I knew him well when he was first jock to Fred Rimell. More recently, he and Henrietta made a marvellous partnership.”

TERRY Biddlecombe was one of steeplechasing’s most fearless and colourful characters who became a three-time champion jockey in a distinguished career.

This larger than life figure won the title in 1965 and 1966 before sharing the honours with Bob Davies in 1969.

Born in Gloucester in February 1941, Biddlecombe’s interest in horses stemmed from his father, Walter, who was a keen showjumping and point-to-point enthusiast.

Biddlecombe began his racing career at the age of 17 and landed his first winner in March 1958 on Burnella at Wincanton when beating Fred Winter.

He rode Woodland Venture to victory in the 1967 Cheltenham Gold Cup, his finest hour in the saddle, while other successes included the 1963 Irish Champion Hurdle on Honour Bound and the 1970 Welsh National on French Excuse. He was also synonymous with Gay Trip, winning the 1969 and 1971 Mackeson Gold Cups on the horse before finishing an agonising second in the 1972 Grand National.

The winner of 900 races before injury and alcoholism took their toll, Biddlecombe’s life was effectively saved by the trainer Henrietta Knight whom he married in 1995 after presenting her with this ultimatum: “It’s the bottle or me.”

Knight and Biddlecombe enjoyed fantastic success with the likes of Edredon Bleu, Lord Noelie and Impek but will forever be remembered for their association with Best Mate, who won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups from 2002-04.