The skill-set needed to be a racehorse trainer has expanded, as the newest member of its ranks is finding out, with how to handle a social media account to publicise your stable now a basic business requirement.
‘Everything has to be on social media these days,’ says Henrietta Knight. ‘I haven’t got the hang of Instagram yet but I am on it. I’m also on Facebook and I’ve been put on Twitter so I looked up some quotations to use in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
‘One of them I liked was, “Enthusiasm moves the world”. It does, doesn’t it. Another one was “Age is a dream”. What is age? It doesn’t mean anything.
‘It is how you tackle age and how you tackle life. People have said I must be mad to start training again but it’s what I love doing.’
The birthday cards on the table are evidence that Knight turned 77 on December 15, four days before the BHA approved her return to the training ranks after an 11-year hiatus.
Racehorse trainer Henrietta Knight came out of retirement this year after 11 years away
The 77-year-old says she’s getting the hang of social media as it’s an essential part of the business
If Frankie Dettori’s decision to reverse his retirement surprised very few, the news that the woman best known for her association with three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate was coming back came out of the blue.
Knight’s frontline presence went when she handed in her first licence to care for her late husband Terry Biddlecombe before his death in 2014. But in reality she never left racing.
Having already written two books, there were three more, one about trainers and one about jockeys after a first chronicling her life with Biddlecombe, the charismatic ex-champion jockey with two marriages and a battle with alcoholism behind him who would become her soulmate.
Knight was also racing manager to owner Mike Grech, who died in September. Her eye for a horse secured I Am Maximus, who won last season’s Irish Grand National after being sold to JP McManus.
And there was also the Knight jumping academy, with more than 50 trainers utilising her know-how, sending her their horses to brush up their technique.
Seeing them go off to run and win for their respective trainers made yearning to return increasingly hard to resist.
Knight said: ‘We still have people’s horses here to teach them to jump but I just thought, “Why can’t we do it ourselves?” Every day we look to see which ones we had that are running and I thought I’d love to be in the thick of it again.
‘I enjoyed my time managing Mike Grech’s horses because I was right back in the big time.
Knight’s frontline presence went when she handed in her first licence to care for her late husband Terry Biddlecombe (centre) before his death in 2014
‘We were buying top horses for the best trainers and going to the best race meetings.
‘My horses have done very well for him since. But with him dying and the horses having to be sold there was a vacuum which had to be filled.
‘I spent a lot of time in Ireland last winter because Mike wanted his horses there. It was extremely interesting and I learnt a lot. When you are training you can’t go to other stables. The trainers don’t particularly want you because you are opposition. It is utterly fascinating all the different ways there are to train horses.
‘Now I have come back into training I know far more than when I first started in 1989 because I have been to so many yards.’
The decision to come back was finally cemented when Knight persuaded former trainer and Grand National-winning jockey Brendan Powell to become her assistant.
Knight says: ‘I have known Brendan for years. He is so good on the form, the races, the jockeys and courses — just like Terry was. They are the bits I don’t know enough about. I can deal with the horses but you need other brains to place them in the right races.’
Knight admits she lost her zest for life in the immediate aftermath of Biddlecombe’s death. All the racehorses had gone and her West Lockinge Farm, near Wantage, seemed sad and empty.
Knight persuaded former trainer and Grand National-winning jockey Brendan Powell (R) to become her assistant
With the help of Dawn Graham, who Knight describes as her ‘priceless secretary’, vibrancy began to return by advertising the stable as a livery yard in local shop windows and newspapers.
The former biology teacher, who finished 12th at Badminton in 1973 and was chairperson of the British Olympic Games Horse Trials Selection Committee from 1984 to 1988, even offered riding lessons. But proof a bloody-minded determination had never left Knight surfaced when she overcame what was so nearly a disastrous accident.
Knight recalls: ‘Rather stupidly after Terry died I broke my leg. I’d never broken a bone when riding but I was in a bit of a dream, wandering around the pond and fell in. I was out of it.’
She suffered a compound ankle fracture, with her foot facing the wrong way, bone sticking out and ‘blood everywhere’.
Despite Graham imploring Knight to keep still while the paramedics arrived, she insisted on crawling back to her house and completing the next day’s work schedule for her horses before being whisked away in an ambulance.
Knight says: ‘I was not in pain, just furious I couldn’t walk! As I went down to the operating theatre, the doctor said, “We may not be able to save your foot”. I was shocked and when I woke up in recovery I looked down to check I still had a foot.
Wincanton on January 10 has been pencilled in for Knight’s first runner
‘Now I’ve got screws, pins and god knows what in there. I had to wear a boot. That’s why I wrote the book because I was totally incapacitated. I had to do something because I can’t be idle.’
Wincanton on January 10 has been pencilled in for Knight’s first runner when Ballywalter could run in a maiden hurdle. Her early runners also include Zettabyte, formerly trained in Ireland by Gordon Elliott.
‘We have 31 boxes licensed and we can have more if we need them,’ said Knight.
‘The most I had when I first trained was 86 and it was too many. Some of the appeal with me and Brendan will be owners feeling they are more part of a smaller yard rather than those great big yards which are not so personal.
‘This farm is extraordinary — whether it is horses, ponies, ducks, geese or dogs, animals seem to settle here as do humans. The staff are pretty happy and some were here when I first trained.’
Cheltenham is, of course, the place most associated with Knight. An interview with her and Biddlecombe was essential and invariably entertaining before the Festival when Best Mate and his stablemate Edredon Bleu, winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2000, were around.
Both steeplechasers also won Kempton’s King George VI Chase.
With a stable of predominantly young horses, Knight is unlikely to have runners at this season’s Festival but long term that is where she wants to be.
‘If anything my ambition and determination is stronger,’ says Knight. ‘I have a lot to live up to and I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I have to prove to people I can still do it.’