Henrietta Knight's new book 'Not Enough Time: My Life With Terry Biddlecombe', charts the former trainer's life with her late husband, the ex-champion jockey. Here she remembers the fateful day that Best Mate, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in a row, died at Exeter Racecourse in 2005
On that fateful day, when Best Mate returned to the racecourse he loved, nobody could have foreseen the tragedy that was to unfold.
Thousands of fans were there and attendance numbers were exceptionally high.
It was business as usual; everybody was longing to see the former wonder horse. Terry and I did the saddling up, as we always did, and we felt happy with our star. In the designated box, while we positioned his tack, his ears were pricked. He was trembling with the excitement of the occasion and he intently watched everything that was happening around him.
As he absorbed the atmosphere, Best Mate stared across to the racecourse with his usual eagerness – and when he walked around the paddock, he strode out as though he owned the place.
He had never been beaten at Exeter and this was his fourth visit. He loved playing to his public and was a proper show-off. The only difference that day was that he was being led up by his new lass, Gemma Bennett.
His former minder, Jackie Jenner, had left our employment at the end of April. There were some outstanding photographs of Best Mate in the preliminaries that day and Gemma had turned him out superbly. She was rightly proud of her new charge. Jim Lewis and his supporters thronged the centre of the parade ring wearing their customary Aston Villa scarves. This was Jim’s favourite football club and Best Mate’s racing colours were maroon and pale blue.
Terry legged up the jockey, Paul Carberry, who had been invited to ride Matey that day. Jim Culloty had retired from race-riding and the two other jockeys who had previously ridden and won on Best Mate were unavailable at Exeter. Timmy Murphy rode Contraband for David Johnson and A. P. McCoy rode Ground Ball for J. P. McManus.
‘I remember thinking how magnificent he looked’
After watching Best Mate canter down to the start on that November day, I remember thinking how magnificent he looked.
There was no hint of anything amiss. He strode out majestically and his coat gleamed in the autumn sunshine; even his dapples showed up. In keeping with tradition, I then walked down the racecourse to watch the race unfold and listen to the commentary close to the last fence. I could see the action from there without being among the huge crowd of racegoers. The grandstand was packed with people.
My nerves were tingling with anticipation, but I was pleased with our horse. He had never looked better. I felt proud to be training him. There were 11 runners in the Haldon Gold Cup in 2005 and, as they streamed over the fence in front of me, Best Mate looked happy, he was up with the pace. He jumped with his usual fluency and glided through the air.
Then the runners disappeared around the corner, out of my sight and I could no longer clearly hear the commentary. I waited anxiously for them to approach the final bend and held my binoculars to my eyes with shaking hands.
Would I see Best Mate close to the front? On the two occasions he had previously won the race, he had always been prominent when they had turned into the straight.
All of a sudden I spotted the runners. They were closely bunched, but there was no sign of Best Mate among them. Then I saw him: on the inside of the course, pulling wide of the fences. Instantly, I knew that something must be horribly wrong. My heart sank. He hadn’t been pulled up in any race since that very first point-to-point in Ireland. Indeed, on every other occasion, in the 21 races he had contested, he had finished in the first two. He had either won or been second.
In a flash, I was under the railings and making my way further down the track. Best Mate was approaching me in a trot and his stride appeared normal, but as he got closer he faltered and his gait changed. He veered across the course towards the outer railings, close to the last fence.
There was a lack of co-ordination in his hind limbs and his eyes were glazed. As he wobbled further, Paul jumped off in the nick of time, just before his mount gently keeled over on his right side onto the beautifully manicured green grass. I was with him instantly, but I knew immediately that his life was ebbing away.
The steeplechasing superstar was crowned the British Horse Racing Board's Jump Horse of the Year
‘He took his last breath and lay motionless’
Some years before, I had been riding my treasured three-day event horse when he had suffered a heart attack and his behaviour had been exactly the same. The end was quick. Best Mate would have felt no pain. It was as though he was in a coma. He took his last breath and lay motionless. There was no struggle. His death was extremely peaceful.
A sudden numbness came over me. Was this for real, or a bad dream? In no time at all, I was surrounded by scores of spectators and members of the press. A new stand had been erected that day, beside the final fence. It was crammed with racegoers – most of them Best Mate fans. He had died in front of their eyes and they had seen everything first-hand. The shock was indescribable.
There was an eerie silence as people gathered around the fallen star, and then the dreaded green screens were put up so that the racegoers could no longer see him.
I took a grip of myself and remembered what my darling Mum had always instilled into us as children: don’t cry in public. I tried to blank out the full horror of the occasion. At least the horse hadn’t suffered – it would have been far worse if he had broken a leg.
But his supporters in the racing world had lost their idol. He had acquired a massive fan club and he could not possibly have lost his life more publicly. The race had been televised and millions of people had watched his dying moments. I needed to pull myself together and face up to the truth.
Terry came down the course as fast as he could to find me. He had watched the race unfold on the big screen beside the paddock. He put his arms around me and his eyes were full of tears, but we had a job to do and it was not the right time to mourn.
‘There were wet eyes and handkerchiefs everywhere’
People wandered about on the track in disbelief. Jim Lewis and his wife Valerie were totally shattered. There were wet eyes and handkerchiefs everywhere.
For my part, I went straight to Paul Carberry and kept the crowds away from him. I walked back beside him to the weighing room and he carried Best Mate’s saddle. It was a solemn walk but I needed to return to the buildings, as we had another runner, Racing Demon, in the following race. It was his first chase and there was no reason for him not to run. Racing had to continue. The gallant victor of the Haldon Gold Cup – Monkerhostin – was being greeted by his own supporters in the unsaddling enclosure, but the crowds were noticeably subdued.
I was approached by many people – they came up to me from all angles – but I managed to stay calm and talk sensibly. I even did a television interview on a racing channel. It wasn’t easy, but I stressed how lucky we were to have trained such a wonderful horse and I explained that he was born and bred to race.
He had died doing the job that he enjoyed and thankfully he had not suffered. I remembered the words of Byron: ‘Those whom the gods love, die young.’ I remember saying to the press that all horses have to die some time – we all have to go – but it’s doubly tragic when it happens so unexpectedly.
Racing Demon, with Timmy Murphy, duly won the novice chase. This, too, was an extremely moving occasion. As I walked to greet the horse, Timmy put out his gloved hand and gave my own hand a tight squeeze. When he walked into the winner’s enclosure, the crowd gave Demon a huge reception.
There were massive cheers and I remember saying to Timmy: ‘This is unbelievable.’ He said: ‘They do have hearts, you know.’ I will never forget that demonstration of affection. It touched me immensely.