Henrietta Knight interview: My first runner in 1989 was a winner – I have cold feet this time

Henrietta Knight with Ballywalter, her first expected runner since returning to training, at her West Lockinge yard
Henrietta Knight with Ballywalter who will wear her late sister's silks at Wincanton on Friday - Debbie Burt/Telegraph

On Friday racing goes back to the future at Wincanton when Henrietta Knight, the trainer of three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate, saddles her first runner since she ‘retired’ to nurse her late husband Terry Biddlecome in 2012.

In the intervening 11 years Knight has also lost her sister Cici and Cici’s husband, Lord Vestey, prominent owners when she was training first time round, and Ballywalter, who is owned by Knight’s niece Mary, will carry Cici Vestey’s silks.

“It will be a family affair,” she points out. “It will be quite moving to see my sister’s colours on my first runner.”

She is, however, not dwelling on that but, rather, feeling a certain trepidation ahead of her return to the training ranks. “I’ve got very cold feet about my first runner this time around,” she says. “When I started in 1989 my first runner was a winner. So much has been written since I announced my comeback, everyone is watching and expecting. Back then we just pottered up to Bangor with a pointer who fell more often than not and no one expected anything.

“I’m hoping he runs well, he’s a nice horse but not a star of the future although we’ll have fun with him. He’s not very fast, he won an Irish point-to-point about nine weeks ago but he’ll love the mud.”

Knight, 77, returns, she reckons, knowing more about training than when she retired having written The Jumping Game which gave her unprecedented access to 30 trainers to write about their methods.

Coupled with that she is being ‘assisted’ by Brendan Powell, himself a former successful trainer who has spent the last five years assisting Joseph O’Brien.

“Brendan is a huge asset,” she says. “He was telling someone he wished he’d known what he learned with Joseph when he was training. It’s like skinning a cat; there are many ways to train a horse and horses respond differently to different methods.

“I don’t think Best Mate would have responded well to being in a big yard. We molly-coddled him, wrapped him in cotton wool and I’m not sure how he’d have coped being one of a number in a big string.”

Henrietta Knight at her home and training centre at West Lockinge Farm
Knight is keen to keep expectations realistic upon her return to racing - Debbie Burt/Telegraph

Even a septuagenarian can dream and if the chances of another Best Mate walking into West Lockinge are slim, she is clear in her aims. “You tell me whether lightning can strike twice?” she asks rhetorically. “I want a small bunch of horses capable of winning races, if a good one comes out of the pack that’s a bonus.

“If it’s good enough to run at the Cheltenham Festival that’s a double bonus and if it’s good enough for the first spot, that’s a treble bonus. I’d love to walk across that paddock with a winner again – it’s not a feeling you can explain or describe.

“Of course we have to win races and make it pay. We’ve some nice four-year-olds which will win bumpers in the spring but we’re a bit short on older horses and the time for getting them is not now, it’s at the end of the season.”

At a time of great uncertainty in the sport, you can either take the view she is mad or to take your hat off to her for going back in.

“I could have carried on doing what I was doing, essentially running a livery yard and teaching other people’s horses to jump,” she continues. “I like a busy, bustling yard but I was sending the horses back and they were winning for other people. You don’t see it through, someone else does. There’s some satisfaction in that but I’d like to carry on with them.”

Knight with one of her Connemara ponies at West Lockinge Farm
Knight with one of her Connemara ponies at West Lockinge - Debbie Burt/Telegraph

There are a lot of superstitions in racing – a lot of trainers will not wear green to the races – but first time around, Knight took idiosyncrasy to a new level and that, it appears, will not be changing any time soon.

“If you come into a house by one door you’ve got to leave by that door,” she begins. “You must never pass on the stairs, if you say goodbye and you’ve forgotten something and go back in the house you have to sit down before departing again. I’m not keen on one magpie, I hate black cats crossing the road, a robin in the house is a portent of a death. But I don’t mind walking under a ladder, 13 or green.

“It was written that when Best Mate was running in the Gold Cup I’d hide in the loo but that was a myth. I’d look or walk away sometimes but because I watched all of his first Gold Cup in 2002, I had to watch them all and do everything the same.

“I used to back every other horse in the race except Best Mate too because I wanted some pleasure if he’d have been beaten. That cost me £800-£900 a year!

“The biggest one was hay and straw though. To see a load of straw on the way to the races is good luck but hay is awful. With straw you draw, with hay you pay. Before the 2004 Gold Cup I got the straw merchant to deliver to the yard that morning!”

Henrietta Knight celebrates after Best Mate's Cheltenham Gold Cup win in 2004
Knight after Best Mate's third Cheltenham Gold Cup win in 2004 - Phil Cole/Getty Images

There is not much Knight has not done in her 76 years; from being a deb’s delight, getting a degree in teaching from Oxford (she is a B.Ed) teaching history and biology at a local girls’ convent school, to finishing 12th at the Badminton three-day event to breeding prize-winning connemaras and training the only horse since Arkle to win three Gold Cups.

As a friend of royalty, for 11 years on the trot she was invited to Royal Lodge by the late Queen Mother for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes weekend in July. “I’m not really one for pomp so I’d start worrying about it from about three weeks out,” she recalls.

“The bath would be run for you, you’d get breakfast in bed and when you arrived your suitcase was whipped away from you to be unpacked by a maid. I was so worried about someone else unpacking for me that every year before I went I’d go to M&S to buy new underwear to make sure it was spotless! But she was a wonderful hostess and I loved talking about racing and life with her.”

Henrietta Knight’s racing life part II is just as likely to produce as many anecdotes as it does winners. Terry Biddlecome, she is adamant, would have approved. “He hated it when I handed the licence in to look after him,” she says.

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