Jumping Knight class: How former trainer Henrietta turns wayward horses into Cheltenham winners
- Heather Knight has been reinvigorated by her involvement in day-to-day racing
- She will have a huge influence on the biggest jumps meeting of the season
- Her graduates will line up over four days of the Cheltenham Festival this week
The days when Henrietta Knight had winners at the Cheltenham Festival are history but that doesn’t mean she won’t have a huge influence on the biggest jumps meeting of the season.
The former teacher who guided three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate before retiring as a trainer in 2012 has gone back to school — but not to teach biology and history. Knight’s pupils are equine and the subject is how to jump.
Such is her success that class numbers are high, often with a waiting list to join the fresh starters learning the basics or wayward pupils needing a refresher after a crisis of confidence.
Henrietta Knight (centre) has been reinvigorated by her involvement in day-to-day racing
Her graduates will line up over the four days of the Festival including Nicky Henderson-trained Pentland Hills, second favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, and Hughie Morrison’s Not So Sleepy, who also runs in day one’s big race.
Henderson’s Palladium, prominent in the betting for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, and Warren Greatrex-trained Emitom, one of the biggest threats to Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle favourite Paisley Park, have also been to the Knight finishing school, just as Christian Williams-trained Potters Corner did a few days before he won the Welsh National in December.
Six years after the death of her partner, three-time champion jump jockey Terry Biddlecombe, 73-year-old Knight has been reinvigorated by her involvement in day-to-day racing. ‘I love seeing horses taught the right way and then watching them,’ she says.
‘We have a lot of horses come here who have made a lot of errors on a racecourse. They have to go back to the basics and get their confidence back. It is all about them enjoying it.
‘It’s six years ago that Terry died. For three years very little happened here. I wrote books because I like being occupied. Then I started filling the boxes again and jumping horses and it has just snowballed.
‘I get more pleasure seeing young horses jumping and helping horses which have had problems than anything else in racing.
‘We were lucky when we had Best Mate. He was an immaculate jumper. He never made a mistake and with him and (Queen Mother Champion Chase winner) Edredon Bleu it is probably what won them their races at Cheltenham.
‘So many races can be won or lost through faulty jumping. If you can give a horse really strong foundations, if it knows that when it meets a fence wrong, or that when there are other horses around it, it can still manage to jump a fence right, you are at a huge advantage.
‘I don’t go racing as often now but if I do or I am watching on TV, it’s just so exciting if a horse we have had jumping here wins. It’s not so exciting if it makes a terrible series of blunders!’
Her graduates will line up at Cheltenham, including Nicky Henderson-trained Pentland Hills
All schools need good facilities. Most important to Knight is an unprepossessing wooden enclosure which surrounds her loose schooling ring. It is where her pupils learn to jump without jockeys, jumping naturally and building their technique.
Leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott has copied the exact dimensions, Knight says, to build a similar ring at his stable. Built on the site of an old tennis court at her West Lockinge base near Wantage in Oxfordshire, it is where Reg Hobbs, trainer of 1938 Grand National winner Battleship, taught horses to jump.
The young Knight was often a spectator, soaking up information and being allowed to ride the horses Hobbs had just broken in. Knight, who competed at the Badminton Horse Trials as a rider, says: ‘He kept everything so simple and kept horses so relaxed. That’s the most important thing in training.’
Before she started training, Knight was using the information to teach horses to jump around the little ring including 1988 Champion Hurdle winner Celtic Shot and 1982 RSA Chase winner and 1984 Gold Cup runner-up Brown Chamberl in, equine luminaries sent to her by the legendary Fred Winter.
When assessing some of this week’s big contenders, Knight asks the same questions she asks of her own horses: do they jump well enough to win at the Cheltenham Festival?
‘The best jumper in the Gold Cup by a long way is Lostintranslation,’ she says. ‘He is an outstanding jumper but he has had a few training hiccups. Al Boum Photo (last year’s winner) has a lot of ability but doesn’t strike me as a natural jumper.
‘He made a series of mistakes when he was beaten by Kemboy at Punchestown last year.
‘I am not sure (Champion Chase hope) Chacun Pour Soi jumps like a Cheltenham horse. I might be wrong but he is quite flat and I am not sure (RSA Chase favourite) Champ is a champion either.
‘I watched him when he won at Newbury and he had that bad fall at Cheltenham. Horses have an amazing memory.’