Friday, 25 May 2012

Blue Eiderdown

I was sorry to see Henrietta Knight retire from training this week. The official explanation was that she needed more time to look after husband Terry, who had a stroke last year. I wish her and Terry the best. 


In truth, Hen's star has been on the wane for some time. The stable has had fewer runners in recent seasons and fewer high profile winners, drawn from a decreasing number of very loyal patrons. So maybe the time was right. 


But it is worth emphasising the affection in which she and Terry are held by the racing community. Her tender handling of Best Mate to win three imperious Gold Cups, accompanied by a charming, almost skittish and yet idiosyncratic persona won her a unique place in the hearts of the public. Best Mate's tragic death in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in 2005 seemed to me to mark a change in the stable's approach. The incident must have, quite understandably, left it's mark on the team. And from that point on, we saw much more cautious and low profile campaigns for some horses of high class ability. Nevertheless, Racing Demon, Calgary Bay and Somersby have all won some decent prizes, even if my uncharitable suspicion is that that they have, ever so slightly, under-achieved.


That was certainly not the case when Hen and Terry were at the the peak of their powers. Best Mate is a legend. A very fine horse. But my own favourite of her vintage crop is Edredon Bleu. In contrast to some of Hen's later charges, this one is a horse who probably over-achieved.  


I saw him race a couple or three times. Perhaps most notably at the Exeter in '02. An early edition of Mug Punting, dusted off here in tribute to Hen and Terry, picks up the tale:
Rays of sunshine are slanting through my office window at a low angle. They highlight a sheen of dust covering my pc screen. Summer is exhaling easily into Autumn. I'm peering at the screen through the reflection (squinting is an easier option than moving the window blinds on this soporific Thursday) when an e-mail from Brynaldo pops up in the new messages box. It's ten past four. This missive can only mean one thing.  
“Fancy a swiftie after work boys? Willow Walk, 5-10?” 
Sound. Bacchy joins us for his customary two-pint slurp. It's busy down the 'Walk and we squeeze in at the bar. 
Bryn is a newly expectant Father and is taking his pre-paternal duties seriously. Not least among them is finding a house for himself, Debs, and his child-to-be for the occupation thereof. He slips away this very evening after a couple of pints to put the finishing touches to his property scam which involves buying a house near our mate Nick in Worcester Park in order to force down the value, buy up the stock and become a tyrannical landlord. Only the first part of this sting is currently in place.

Mild surprise then, that come the six o'clock watershed, it's me and Bacchy propping up the veneered MDF. Not me and Brynaldo. Conversation inevitably turns to the approach of the jumps season. We look forward and we wax lyrical: the return of Best Mate who may well stamp his champion class all the over the stayers division; the potential emergence of Seebald and Moscow Flyer; the unproven but mouth-watering credentials of Armaturk; the ability of the novice class of 01/02 to mix with the big boys in championship company.

But it’s still a shock, despite this Grade-class banter, that before we know it, the black hole is gaping before us. That strange twist of the elements that conspire to swallow time in the pub between 7.30pm and 10pm. Where does that time go? One minute you are finishing off the last pint ready to get your coat and be home in time for tea, and the very next moment you are pissed, late, skint and sniffing out kebabs with the zeal of a hunter/gatherer. It's beyond me. 

“Fancy one for the road then?”
“I can squeeze one in if you are sticking around”, offers Bacchy

“Yeah, I think I'm OK for another”, and then to the barman, “two pints of the guest ale please?”
It's slipping down well, this stuff. It's the dog's bollocks. No really it is. Wychwood Dogs Bollocks, OG 1048, brewed in darkest Kent.

Dangerous, loose talk is this.


“Sorry mate, there's a £5 minimum on card purchases.”

I look at my flacid piece of plastic. I've already done my real dough - the wallet is empty. It's just like being down the bookies.

“OK, make it four pints - and £30 cashback please.”

Steve throws his head back; his laugh is shot through with resignation and inevitability. We set the controls for the heart of the black hole and settle in for the duration.

Before the kebab rush, we have organised a day out at Exeter on 5th November. It's a good early season card whose jewel-encrusted crown is the Haldon Gold Cup: a stiff 2-mile 1 ½ furlongs around the undulating moor. Henrietta Knight has already declared her intention to send Best Mate for his season's pipe opener, and Armaturk and Seebald are both likely runners. We set the seal on our good idea with a couple of well deserved Jameson's and head off into the (long departed) sunset. 

Come the big day we are still on course. There have been a couple of minor blips to negotiate, such as the realisation that 5th November is bonfire night (remember, remember), with all its attendant family commitments. Not to mention Hen Knight deciding, in the end, not to run stable star Best Mate at Exeter (allegedly because of going concerns, but more likely because an easier blow first time out at Huntingdon in a week's time is more attractive). Edredon Bleu goes instead. No mean substitute. And we are not deterred. 
 Out of the train, it's a taxi ride up on the the wild moor on which perches the track. Probably. Low lying cloud has rolled in and veiled the vista in translucent grey. 
We are in. It's busy. It's a small track and this is its biggest day. And yet not overly busy. There is room to wander and fraternise. We have planned the journey well. There is plenty of time to explore the course.  Once again I move stealthily past the owners and trainers bar and cast furtive glances inside. I'll be on the other side of that door one day. 

We linger by the excellent, intimate paddock and parade rings.  Before most of the races, we return here to see the horses warmed up and saddled. We compare the sizes of the beasts, judge their gait and demeanour (like we know what we are looking for...) and observe the trainers and connections. 

Henrietta and Terry Biddlecombe have a couple of runners and they are preparing Robber Baron for the novice hurdle. They are an amazing team. Appearances belie their skill and knowledge. Henrietta exudes a deep love and innate understanding of horses, but she can’t bear to watch them run and can be found in the car park on the end of a mobile phone whilst the race is in progress. She’s a bit like a slightly mad Auntie Nora who always gives you jumpers three sizes too big for your Christmas present every year. But you always wear one of them when you are with her because you wouldn't dream of offending. And Terry. You would never guess to look at him, but Terry was Champion jockey three times and has a Gold Cup win tucked under his enormous belt. There is quite a lot under his belt. He is the chortling Uncle Bernard who drinks in life and talks like a runaway train. He's your mate really, and he'll buy you a pint down the pub even though you are not quite 18 yet. They are the genuine odd couple, but as I say, appearances can deceive. What a team. Their genuine love for the game shines like a beacon. A bit like Terry's bonce sitting on top of his rotund frame.  

Later on there is a lovely moment as Armaturk is being readied in his box for the Haldon Gold Cup. The stable lad has saddled up the chaser and the gaffer, Paul Nicholls is chatting to him. When they are satisfied, Nicholls moves off, but not before giving Armaturk an affectionate peck on the nose. This touches me. Racing often hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons - corruption and collusion and so on. Such a genuine moment as Nicholls' gesture restores my faith that there is warmth underneath the hard-boiled gambling.  

The Grandstand is packed for the first. I'm shoe-horned in next to some wide boy car dealer on an away day from Essex. His camel hair coat gets up my nose and the stench from his fat cigar gets in my eyes. The cloud is still low, but there is a very good view of the undulations that the horses must struggle round. Down the back straight there is a particularly testing pull. It's also clear from the first novice hurdle race that the ground is riding softish when Robber Baron wins by 5 lengths. 

Soft rain descends from even lower cloud. Much of the course is obscured from view. Just in time for the feature of the day.  We have been scoping the contenders in the paddock. It is a fine prospect. There goes Latalomne looking frisky and nodding at Bacchy on each circuit. Seebald looks in fine fettle too. AP McCoy is hobbling around after a fall in the 2nd, but as soon as he mounts up he is a different prospect, suddenly looking welded to the horse. Man and beast as one. Ruby Walsh is aboard Armaturk who is a gorgeous chestnut colour and looks well. Top weight and elder statesman Edredon Bleu glides passed us calm and aloof. It’s a small field and we also get a good look at the outsiders, Castle Prince and the old rascal Ferdy Murphy’s runner Ichi Beau. 

Bacchy has an edgy and, by his own admission, sentimental punt on Latalomne. He is seeking Champion Chase retribution. I want to be on Armaturk. I think he'll win. But he's 2/1. I really don't fancy that. It's no kind of bet. Seebald is odds on which seems a bit extreme. I'm dallying. I've come all this way for the best chase of the year so far and I'm thinking about no bet. 

Bacchy remarks, “Look at Edredon, he's out to 10s". 
And he is. Everywhere. So I plunge. He sees my ticket and hollers, “Come on Edredon!” 

I wish I had premonitions. I don't. But this feels like a good bet. He's just too good a horse to be isolated in the market with the long shots at double figures in such a small field. I can hear Bacchy's words at countless venues over the last year.

“Where's the value? Where have the bookies got it wrong? Where is the market over-pricing a live chance? Find him and you've found your value.” 

Wise words. Top advice. I'm a disciple and today it pays off. Edredon is a sensation. He takes them round for the first circuit at a cracking pace, looking very strong. They disappear into the murk and who knows what is going on. The giant screen can't pick them up. So we wait. It's like a library out there. You could hear a pin drop if course commentator Simon Holt wasn't puncturing the silence with wisecracks. “Anybody on a long shot? This is the time to imagine him in the lead. Anyone got a road map? They should be emerging from the mist....now, er.....now. Maybe not.....” 

He's earning his wedge today. 

But here they come for real. And it's still Edredon in full sail. Jim Culloty's claret and blue colours are carried easily and boldly in front.  We've moved to the rail. No point in languishing in the Grandstand. They are not in the home straight yet but I can see Edredon's ears are pricked. Seebald is the nearest of his rivals and McCoy moves up to make his challenge just before the 3rd last. Edredon puts in a spectacular leap. An awesome leap. The crowd gasps collectively. Bloody hell that was special. I'm tingling. 

He gallops away from the fence like a four year old. Seebald is left in the wake of the blue eiderdown and he never gets closer. Two lengths, four lengths. Christ, I'm filling up. Bacchy thumps me on the back, “Edredon you beauty!" 

But I can't let go until he clears the last. He does. He flies it. Now I'm dancing! 
This is the highlight, but the rest of the afternoon doesn't disappoint. There is a cracking novice chase featuring top prospects Montreal, Bow Strada and Farmer Jack. Next up, Bacchy - maximum respect here - conspires to land a well-plotted reverse exacta in a desperately strongly contested handicap chase in which Satshoon edges out Handyman by the closest of margins. Ruby Walsh picks up a 3-day whip-ban for his efforts. We see promising novice chaser Jair du Cochet post his first victory at Folkestone over the best stilton soup and pork bap combination this side of Cleeve Hill. To round things off we both back Tales of Bounty in the final handicap hurdle of the day who strolls home for a Nicholls/Walsh/Atkinson/Clark double.  
It is the manner of the victory that seals the moment. Exuberant jumping, strong galloping and a serious value winner by 10 lovely lengths. The welcome for the old boy back in the winner’s enclosure is overwhelming. At 10/1, not many of the crowd would have been on him, but it sounded like everyone was. Then again, maybe there's something about paying respect to a worthy champion, an affectionate embrace for an old friend. Stop blubbing you fool.   
Hopping on the the shuttle bus back to the station, there's a groan  from the axles, flexing under the weight of our collective wedge. A couple of Stellas and whisky chasers on the train see us home nicely. Exeter is a welcome addition to the fixture list.
Edredon returned to Haldon Hill the next year and trotted up again. The two of us and Bryn were there to see the repeat. But there was not a sniff of juicy 10-1 on offer this time. If that is not enough. This graceful gelding landed the King George that December, over, as I told my brother, "a wholly unsuitable 3 miles, that, even on a flat track, he will never get. Not in Grade 1 company. And not at 11 years old." My bro, hanging on my every word as usual, bagged a healthy chunk of the 33-1 on offer that Boxing Day morning and shouted me down the length and breadth of Towcester racecourse when we saw him canter home on the big screen. That was his 4th straight win and he slammed the fields in all 5 of his outings in that 2003-04 season. 

Wishing you the happiest of retirements, Hen. We will not forget what you have given us.

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