FOR three successive years she was the woman responsible for everyone’s equine Best Mate.
Now Henrietta Knight has a golden glint in her eye again…and if the Midas touch is as magical as ever, she may well be hailed as a Cheltenham Champ once more.
Two decades ago she landed a hat-trick in jump racing’s Blue Riband event, when Best Mate became the nation’s darling.
It is a post-war record matched only by the mighty Arkle, as Jim Culloty powered up the hill in 2002, 03 and 04.
Now Hen, as she is affectionately known, helps iron out the issues for some of racing's "problem pupils."
And if the message has got through to Champ, there is every chance the horse named after Sir AP McCoy will deny Ireland’s Al Boum Photo a Gold Cup hat-trick of his own.
After retiring as a trainer in 2012, Hen turned her West Lockinge yard, near Wanstead, into an equine school for wayward jumpers.
Among them is Nicky Henderson’s Gold Cup hope, and the proof was there for all to see in his impressive seasonal bow, when runner-up in Newbury’s Denman Chase recently.
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It rocketed him to second favourite behind Willie Mullins’ treble seeker, as last year’s RSA winner was impeccable bar one slight hiccup at the last.
Hen certainly wouldn’t be shocked if Champ made it a case of by name and nature this week.
She said: “I love teaching them to jump and Champ came to us in the autumn. He’s very, very talented – and actually related to Best Mate – but just needed reminding how to jump.
“He’s not like Best Mate and incredibly reliable – but apart from maybe Venetia Williams’ Royal Pagaille there’s no stand-out jumper in there.
“He’s a heart-in-your-mouth job but when he gets it right, he flies them. If he jumps well he certainly has a squeak.
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“Al Boum Photo has put up two very good performances, there’s no getting away from it, but he’s not always the most consistent jumper, so differs from Best Mate in that respect.
“He could well win a third but it’s not the strongest of Gold Cups, and Champ will be carrying my hopes.”
The Irish, of course, won’t hear of defeat for Mullins’ star. Yet even if he pulls it off, Al Boum Photo has never captured hearts quite like Best Mate did.
With good reason, as well. After winning a Cheltenham bumper on his debut, he was only beaten once in six visits – an unlucky-in-running second in the 2000 Supreme Novices.
When it came to the Gold Cup, he was in a class of his own – even if Hen was never as sure as her assistant husband Terry Biddlecombe, himself a former three-time champion jockey.
She revealed: “I was the most pessimistic of trainers and the further we went with Best Mate, the more nervous I got because I didn’t want his reputation dented.
“I used to go down to my local betting shop and back every other horse in the race. If he disappointed me, at least I’d collect some money and it would soften the blow a bit.
”And I always like watching on my own, never with owners…and certainly not with Terry! So the first year I nipped off to the old press tent behind the weighing room.
“Then, because I am so superstitious, I had to do it every year and by the third one it was full, and so tense.
“When Best Mate was penned in on the bend there was a real groan from the crowd, who thought he was beaten. The tension in that press tent was incredible.
“People around me were saying ‘you’re beat, you’re beat,’ and I didn’t know how he could get out from there, but then a fantastic jump at the second last put him back into it.
“There was a huge roar and when I listened to it again I realised how much they all wanted him to win. It was just pure relief.
“Of course you enjoy the day…but you’re also dying for it to be over. It was a tremendous honour to be so loved by the public. I will never forget it.”
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Just like no-one who saw Best Mate run ever will forget him. Even if it is sometimes overlooked that he was also favourite for the 2001 Arkle, when foot and mouth claimed the Festival.
And he could well have made it a fabulous Gold Cup foursome, had he not burst a blood vessel on the gallops in the run-up to another defence of his crown.
This year his trainer, like so many others, will be watching at home in her kitchen, on a swish new television ordered just in time for the Festival.
It is the same room where she celebrated each of Best Mate’s three wins with anything but the Hen party you might imagine.
She joked: “We just had a Chinese takeaway every year because it was always so late by the time we got back!
"But Best Mate really was so special, he loved life…he was just a lovely horse.”
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