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June 2020

At long last we are back racing and although no winners yet the horses have run really well and promise much for the season ahead. It seemed so strange starting off the season with three two year old runners in week one! They all ran terrific races with Host finishing 5th on his debut in a very hot maiden at Kempton followed an hour later by Digital running a blinder to be second at Newcastle.

On a couple of days and Richard Hannon unleashed Cirrus at Newmarket where she finished a close second to the highly fancied Setarhe trained by Roger Varian.

The winning filly is now favourite for the Albany (Gr 3) at the Royal Meeting where we will take her on again! I think that Memory was our last runner…

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The winning filly is now favourite for the Albany (Gr 3) at the Royal Meeting where we will take her on again! I think that Memory was our last runner in the Albany so let's hope we can strike another blow for team HTR! It is hard to believe that Royal Ascot is next week and apart from Cirrus we also hope to run Nicklaus in the Silver Hunt Cup and Durston in the Copper Horse Handicap.

I am so grateful to Mike Richards for his lovely article on his involvement with Highclere – what fun we have had with Mike and Joanna over the years. They have a lovely group of horses with us this year including Ascension who runs at Sandown on Saturday and who we hope is another black type performer in the making for them. Thanks too to brilliant equine artist Charlie Langton for allowing me to interview him. His is truly a remarkable talent and it has been incredible to watch his career blossom over the past few years.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all your patience and remarkable good humour during this enforced lockdown. I know that we are not out of the woods yet but at least we are back racing and hopefully it won’t be too long before we can meet up again on the gallops and eventually back on the racecourse. In the meantime here’s wishing you all possible success with your Highclere horses and happy punting at Royal Ascot next week where Rolf, Alex, Frances, Jason and I will give our respective thoughts on the races each day.

Harry Herbert, Chairman

On The Track

By Alex Smith

At last! While we did not have a runner on the first day of the resumption of racing, our two year olds hit the racing scene very early with Digital…

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At last! While we did not have a runner on the first day of the resumption of racing, our two year olds hit the racing scene very early with Digital (Kevin Ryan) finishing second on day two at Newcastle, where he ran a highly encouraging race and looks sure to go one better very soon. Host, a son of Mehmas who has already made a good start as a first season sire, ran on the same day at Kempton doing all his best work down the home straight to finish fifth (by a nose!) and looks sure to come on heaps for the experience. This was a good effort from a very wide draw which often makes it difficult to get a good position early on.

Cirrus, a lovely daughter of Starspangledbanner, with Ryan Moore on board, did all the hard work when running from the front at Newmarket’s first meeting, was headed inside the final furlong before rallying really well to nearly peg back the winner. She will head to the Albany on the Friday of Royal Ascot and give a big thrill to the owners in the Nic Fiddian- Green syndicate.

Civilian got our three year olds off to a really good start when finishing second at Saint Cloud. He was given a very positive ride by Aurelien Lemaitre and it looked for all the world as if the race was in the bag two furlongs from home before the eventual winner swept by him close to home. Civilian will be back in action soon. Union made an encouraging comeback at Yarmouth where he had to overcome the widest of draws. He then encountered traffic when trying to make progress two furlongs from home, but was not beaten far and will improve for the run.

Fantail - winning at Chelmsford last season

Fantail, an exciting winner on her fist start at Chelmsford back in October, was also faced with an impossible draw back at the same track. Her jockey managed to get her across to the rail to take an early lead, but in doing so lit her up and resulted in her running too free for much of the race, but still managed to finish a close up fourth only beaten under two lengths in what was considered to be a very hot fillies Novice. She remains a very exciting prospect for this season.

Durston - winning at Doncaster last season

Of the older horses, Byline ran a blinder to finish third at Haydock, the first three finishing well ahead of the rest and showed that he has improved over the winter and will win races this season. Durston and Nicklaus will hopefully join Cirrus at the Royal meeting, the former in a new race called the Copper Horse Handicap on the Wednesday and Nicklaus in the Silver Hunt Cup on the same day.

New Trainer On The Block

An Interview By Rolf Johnson

WHEN your boss runs you over in Hungerford High Street, he must be trying to tell you something. Except that Richard Hannon Jnr, the would be ‘terminator’ back in 2019,…

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WHEN your boss runs you over in Hungerford High Street, he must be trying to tell you something. Except that Richard Hannon Jnr, the would be ‘terminator’ back in 2019,  hasn’t a word to say against his victim – his then assistant trainer Tom Ward whose fractured (three places) leg recovered sufficiently for him to take out his own licence last August.

“A great guy, as nice a young bloke as you’d hope to meet, he’s going to make it,” said Richard, either over a barrel for compensation - or overwhelmed by remorse.

But Richard, actually unrepentant, isn’t one to lavish undue praise - and a better driver than running over Tom suggests.

Richard and his father Richard Snr are as good judges of horses and people as you’d find.  Richard Jnr speaks for both. “I tell you, Tom knows exactly what day it is.  I don’t know how it (the accident) happened but boy did he milk it. He wore that support boot for months. Maybe he’d only got one shoe. He always wore the one coat too, like Rupert Bear.”

Tom Ward, 29, looks back fondly on his four years with the Hannons. “It’s a tight family business. They allowed me the exposure on television representing the stable at the races. You need someone behind you to help expand your profile. The Hannons give you the opportunity to engage with the whole of the racing world.”

Tom, before his stint with the Hannons, had seen much of that world having gone on the ‘Grand Tour’ garnering experience with trainers the like of Kiaran McLaughlin in the States, John O’Shea in Australia, Alain Royer-Dupre in France, Mark Johnston here.

In Australia John O’Shea blazed a trail for Godolphin and Tom’s job was to interpret his master’s words and supervise their fulfilment at the track. Indeed, so impressed were Godolphin by Tom’s contribution that John Ferguson their supremo at the time, recommended to the newly crowned champion trainer Richard Hannon Jnr that he had the perfect assistant to take him forward – except the position was already taken – by Hannon Snr!

So he began at Everleigh, the original Hannon base a ten-minute drive (look away Wiltshire Traffic Cops) from the principle yard at Herridge. Everleigh was under Grand National winning jockey Steve Knight’s ‘old school’ eye - from a generation for whom young assistant trainers were utterly expendable. Tom’s ‘further education’ was in as tough a school as Australia.  

O’Shea was noted as ‘a hard marker’ but said: “Ward is going to really make a name for himself in the training ranks. Of the kids that have been through my system he’d be the best’’-words strikingly similar to those of the Hannons. Of course they always have the last one: wishing Tom well Richard Jnr came up with, “He’s not going to pinch my owners is he?”

Tom’s fiancée Alex Lowe’s tour was just as grand. She spent time in Kentucky on an Equine Management Programme; at the Irish National Stud, and with trainers Francis Henri Graffard in France which is where she and Tom met and Gai Waterhouse in Australia, where they met again. Almost in parallel with Tom’s time with the Hannons, she spent four years at David Redvers’ Tweenhills Stud.

“I had wanted to go into business and nominations and marketing executive at Tweenhills was a great entrée,” she said. It also made her the perfect match for Tom.  Everything was predestined – until this April when their marriage was kyboshed by the virus.

Alex’s early horse background had been in dressage - one of the multiple equine disciplines at which Tom’s mother Sarah is expert. She is acknowledged as one of the most respected riding instructors in the country (I speak from personal experience, she taught my daughters).  She demystifies everything to do with the horse – just like the Hannons and like them makes it all fun.

So Tom’s background boasts an impeccable CV. “When I was twelve, yes twelve, I knew what I wanted to be – a trainer. I’d gone racing with my school friends, the Sangsters (sons of the legendary Derby-winning owner Robert) and I was gripped. Mum trained a hunter chaser What Of It and we won three times and a point to point. But I was no jockey. I just hung on for long enough. It was all part of my education.

“Another part was a land management course at Reading University but really that was filling in time before a racing career. My brothers went straight into the City - not for me. Mother never pushed – in fact as the youngest of three brothers when she got to me she couldn’t be bothered,” he said with his customary good humour.

Tom’s career could have been choreographed - “Yes I have had my career mapped out in my head” - a calculated sequence from teenage ambition through the responsibility (but not the power) as assistant to the catchphrase ‘young man in a hurry’ with his first licence.

And then racing went blank. Tom remains unperturbed.  The closure of courses has pulled shutters on many a racing career, even established ones.  “Yes I hadn’t, nobody could, factor in this pandemic but you could say it has given us time to accelerate fine-tuning of our new set up.” This is Whitehouse Stables, Upper Lambourn, a 50-box yard built from scratch.

“Alex is integral, of course and Tom (Marquand) and I got on at Hannons where we were contemporaries. He comes and rides out once a week and though it’s tricky to get him he’s in such demand, we are close.”

The trainer’s positive attitude is impregnable. Having his first runner since lockdown was lifted, at Kempton, Tom commented: “It was strange, the racecourse covered every angle and there was an excited atmosphere that you wouldn’t get at a normal Kempton meeting.” He didn’t quite say “it felt safer than queuing at the Co-op” but that was the gist.

Tom is back to where he was brought up, the Berkshire-Hampshire borders.

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington, the profession is overcrowded and the struggles pretty tough”. Noel Coward’s lyrics apply equally to tyro racehorse trainers. “My parents thought I was mad” said Tom but he would not be denied. A month after signing off his ‘education’ with the Hannons, a month after gaining his licence last August, training from boxes rented from Charlie Mann at Upper Lambourn, debutant Venture Rascal gave him his first winner.

He wasn’t so much star struck as in his own words “dazed” not merely because the victory was by five lengths but because here was the realization of a twelve-year-old’s dream. He has high hopes of Venture Rascal, but who wouldn’t?

In racing for the ambitious with the talent to back it up treading water in racing’s backwaters, pigeon-holed ‘middle of the road’, identified by “he could train a good un if he got one”, just doesn’t cut it.

“Racing will never be a case of just sticking it out – I’ve loved every single minute of my time with the best,” said Tom. “My aim is to join them.”

Now he has to stick it out on his own – with Alex’s assistance. In these difficult times boys will be sorted out from the men and some good men will go to the wall. The ones Tom has built in Upper Lambourn have strong foundations.

An Astronomer Needs A Telescope

By Mike Richards (HTR share owner)

Joanna and I signed up to Highclere to have fun, to meet and work with some of the legends of the sport, and in the hope that, just maybe, we…

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Joanna and I signed up to Highclere to have fun, to meet and work with some of the legends of the sport, and in the hope that, just maybe, we might have the occasional runner in one of those historic events that make British racing the envy of the world.  In fact we’ve been incredibly lucky, actually winning a handful of those races and having had live chances in some of the very biggest – including the King George VI, York’s International Stakes, the St. James’s Palace and Racing Post Trophy, as well as several more overseas, among them the Breeders’ Cup Turf and both the French Oaks and Derby.  Expectations well and truly exceeded!  And no horse has given us as much pleasure as one of the first we were lucky enough to be involved with:  a beautiful son of Galileo – Telescope – who went into training with Sir Michael Stoute.

Now, even though communication from Sir Michael is as limited as he can get away with (as implied by his ‘initials’: SMS), it was clear from early on that we had a good one, with an SAS-style operation required to watch his work.  Following a facile victory in a Newmarket maiden, Telescope was winter favourite for the Derby (the odds for which were checked about every thirty minutes!) until an April setback ruled him out of the race.  Nonetheless, Sir Michael got him back on track and Telescope was able to take the Great Voltigeur as a 3-year-old before really coming into his own the following season, when a breath-taking victory in the Hardwicke at Royal Ascot (the memory of which still sends shivers down the spine) was followed by narrow and gallant defeats in some of the very best races at home and, memorably, abroad:  it doesn’t get much better than a trip to Santa Anita with a leading chance in one of the showpiece Breeders’ Cup races.  At five, he dismissed Listed opposition at Newbury before his always-delicate limbs scuppered the defence of his Hardwicke crown and he was retired to stud in Shropshire as a national hunt stallion.

Telescope winning the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot

How do you follow that?  I think it’s fair to say that his sudden retirement left something of a hole in our lives: for four years our days had been given an added frisson with the knowledge that, deep in Freemason Lodge, Sir Michael was plotting the next stage of Telescope’s adventure and we were sorry to lose that feeling, especially as we had been unable to see him before he left Michael’s yard.  Shropshire seemed a long way away but, towards the end of the following winter, we formed a plan to head west on a road trip and pop in to Shade Oak Stud to say hello (and goodbye) to our old friend.  There were several things on our ‘To Do’ list for the trip – hike in Snowdonia, visit some of Wales’s famous castles, sample Ludlow’s excellent cuisine – but only one on the ‘Do Not’ side of the page: do not, under any circumstances, buy a Telescope foal!

Hmm.  Easier said than done, as it turned out.  Everything was going fine:  Telescope had always been an exceptionally good-looking horse, so it was no surprise to find that he had let down into a magnificent stamp of a stallion nor to hear that his services had been enjoyed by well over 100 mares – a fitting reward for his efforts on the track!  But the problem started when we reached the barn where Telescope’s first few foals were playing.  They were the spitting image of their sire – all elegant neck and white-starred charm – and, faced with this line-up of his ‘mini-mes’, our resolve crumbled.  Guided by Peter, the stud owner, we settled on a handsome colt who, coincidentally, was a half-brother to Highclere’s good handicapper, Regal Monarch.  After a painless negotiation with his breeder, he was ours:  our journey with Telescope was not at its end, after all.

Although formally burdened with the rather grand name Royal Astronomer, ‘Tellytubby’, as the children insist on calling him, then embarked on a top-of-the-range Highclere-style education quite out of keeping with his modest origins:  from nursery school at Heatherwold Stud to prep at Brian O’Rourke’s before graduating to Hughie Morrison’s stable for his racing career.  At every stage, Joanna acted the devoted parent, with weekly visits to ensure that her ‘boy’ was being properly looked after.  Having a horse from a foal provides a completely different perspective and you start to realise how remarkable it is that these fragile animals ever even make it to the racetrack, let alone succeed in winning a race. 

The young Royal Astronomer was rarely without a lump or two on some part of his anatomy – a hoof-shaped reprimand from a paddock companion for his loutish behaviour - but his subsequent progress went smoothly and his Kempton debut was an occasion of high emotion.   He built on that in a return visit and when he finished runner-up at Wolverhampton on his final start as a 2-year-old, the feeling all but matched that of his sire’s Hardwicke victory five years earlier!  It was hard to believe that our Tellytubby might actually be able to hold his own against ‘proper’ racehorses.  Clearly, we would love to provide Telescope with his first winner in what we hope will be a long and successful stud career, although Royal Astronomer’s post-lockdown Haydock return hardly provided much encouragement on that score!  As for the future, well, Royal Astronomer himself is already a gelding, but who knows which of this year’s Highclere crop might one day lead us to another stud and another new beginning?

Getting to know Charlie Langton

An Interview By Harry

Charlie Langton is regarded  as one of the world’s most renowned equine artists and was one of those that kindly gave their names to our new yearling syndicates in 2019. We…

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Charlie Langton is regarded  as one of the world’s most renowned equine artists and was one of those that kindly gave their names to our new yearling syndicates in 2019. We first met a couple of years after Motivator had won the Derby. He emailed me to introduce himself and to ask whether I would be interested in him either painting or sculpting the horse who he admired greatly. I immediately looked at his website and was simply amazed at this young man’s talent (he was 24 at the time we met) and invited him over to meet up.

Charlie is incredibly charming and extremely modest and after a short time I realised that maybe this was my moment to get my children painted as well as Motivator! We agreed on a one third life size of the Derby winner and my three children and I said that I would do everything I could to help promote him in the thoroughbred world. My daughters were not exactly thrilled that they had to sit and be painted  - until they met him whereupon it was  a case of “me I’ll go first - no I will!!” Charlie is a handsome devil and in no time the girls were painted and the result were two beautiful portraits. Well the painting of Motivator was also brilliant and captures the horse unlike any other that I have seen.

Charlie became a good friend and I caught up with him this week to ask a few questions about his career.

When did you start painting?

“There was some painting talent in the family on my Dad’s side. One of my Aunts painted landscapes and I remember going to her studio in Windsor when I was very young which always inspired me. As a child I loved making things and I was particularly drawn to horses. I felt that they were always in my peripheral vision. I started drawing them in more detail in my early teens - the head and eye intrigued me and how the eye was positioned on the head. Then the whole anatomy of the horse so when I was sixteen or seventeen I was sketching the whole animal. I had fantastic art teachers who pushed me forwards and at Radley where I went to school the art department was exceptional. I visited Florence when I was 17 and I loved the place and made a mental note to go back there.”

So what happened when you left school?

“I went to study art in Florence at the well known Charles Cecil Studio. He is American and taught the ‘sight size method’ - so lots of measuring which was a great way to train your eye to look at things. He really pushed me and taught me to capture the detail of what I was painting. When I look at a horse there is so much to observe and this method of teaching really got my eye in. It’s the same as you, Jake and John going to look at horses at the sales. I have seen how John looks at a yearling - the intensity of his stare and that I think is what I do when I start a commission.”

What was the first horse that you painted?

The first was a horse called The Argonaut owned by HM The Queen Mother. Bobby McEwen the vet looked after him and he used to stay with my mother so one day I decided to paint him and I gave the end portrait to my mother as a surprise present. The second one was the top sprinter Bold Edge owned by Sarah Whent who was a great friend of the family.”

So when did you have your first exhibition?

“That was in 2008 in London at the Tryon gallery. Thankfully it went very well and I managed to sell all the paintings which was a huge relief as the following week the financial crash happened!”

When did you start sculpting?

“I started when I was studying in Florence. It always appealed to me more than painting. It sort of sits with me better. It’s very difficult to start as a sculptor because it’s financially so expensive to make a bronze. My lucky break came as a result of John Warren who came over to my studio to see how I was getting on with a Motivator painting he had commissioned me to do. This was different to Harry’s in that it was of Motivator winning at Epsom with the London buses in the background. When he came over he saw one of my sculptures and said “I didn’t know you did these. I have heard that Ascot are thinking of having a life size of Yeats done for the parade ring - would you be interested in me putting your name forward?” Well I leapt at the opportunity and that was the start of everything really as since then I have been working on life sized bronzes of many other champions.”

Yeats

So who came after Yeats?

“The great mare Goldikova followed by Saddlers Wells, Montjeu, Galileo, Giants Causeway, Fastnet Rock and Treve.”

What a gallery of greats that is Charlie! How long does it take to do a life sized bronze?

“It really takes about a year. First of all I sketch the horse and spend quite a bit of time with him or her. I need to know everything about them, not just with my own eye but also through talking to those around the horse and of course the trainer too. I love to study their characters and to hear from others as without that I can’t know how I will portray the animal. It’s so important that the eventual pose suits the character of  the horse. I also take lots of measurements so as to get the dimensions as accurately as I can. I then quarter size the sculpture for the client to come round and see and to critique. It basically takes a month at least to get to this stage of the wax version. I then have to assemble the metal framework for the life size armature stage. This is vital to get right as it’s basically the skeleton that will have to hold a ton of clay on it. I then wrap the armature in polystyrene and a plastic wrap followed by chicken wire all around it too so that the clay sticks. I get on as much clay as I can and then start refining it. I build it up muscle by muscle which takes a lot of time but now you can begin to see the type of horse ie light or heavy. This takes about three to four months to do. The client then comes back to critique again.”

Process

Have you had any shockers at this stage such as “Charlie, this bears no resemblance to my horse!”

“Thankfully not! The worst I have had was someone who mentioned that the tail was “too bushy”!!”

Which horses gave you the most pleasure to sculpt?

“As you can imagine they are all so different but Treve really was a pleasure to do. Some jump out at you and you connect with them. She was definitely one that did.”

Treve

And one that didn’t?

“Well Goldikova was really tricky because she was a difficult character herself. I couldn’t get near her and and eventually she kicked me badly in the thigh just before she was due to run in the Breeders Cup for the last time. I was at Freddy Head’s yard measuring her girth when she booted me and I went flying! She of course went on to win her third Breeders Cup, an astonishing achievement.”

Tell me about the life size sculpture that is in Newmarket of HM The Queen with a mare and foal?

“It was an amazing thing to do. I sculpted the mare and foal and Etienne Milner did the Queen. It was for the Queen’s 90th birthday. Frances Stanley, Nick Wingfield Digby and Rachel Hood were part of a committee that raised the money. Sheikh Mohammed was extremely generous as were many others and now the bronze lives at the entrance to the Rowley Mile racecourse. It was such an honour to be a part of something so special marking Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.”

Mare and Foal

You also sculpted Harbinger for me and those bronzes are simply amazing of the horse. How was he to sculpt?

“He was an absolute joy to do because he had such an instantly recognisable head - he boasts a really fine head and eye which I can recall so clearly even now. I watched his King George win again yesterday and every time I see that Harry it raises the hairs on the back of my neck!”

Harbinger

And finally what horse are you most looking forward to watching this year that maybe you will get to sculpt or paint in the future?

“Well apart from the horse in the syndicate you named after me called Zenith with William Haggas it must be Enable. She is such a star and one of those very rare animals in looks and ability that all of us should study in the greatest of detail! I can’t wait to see her run in and hopefully win the Arc for the third time - wouldn’t that be amazing?! And then I will live in hope that I might have the honour of doing a life size of her for Prince Khaled!”
 

An Ascot Treat!

By Clodagh McKenna

As it’s Royal Ascot next week I thought I would share one of my all time favourite summer desserts for to make over the exciting week of racing. It is…

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As it’s Royal Ascot next week I thought I would share one of my all time favourite summer desserts for to make over the exciting week of racing. It is so decadent in flavour and looks absolutely fabulous, an Ascot winner! Rosewater is one of my favourite flavours, its gentle floral taste works so perfectly with the light and fluffy pavlova. I make the pavlova the evening before and leave it to cool overnight in the oven (turned off). It’s quite nice to make a jug of raspberry syrup to pour over each slice of pavlova. The syrup is very simple to make - place 100g raspberries, 2 tbsps of water and 2 tbsps caster sugar in a small saucepan over a low heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes until the raspberries have turned to mush. Remove from the heat and pass through a sieve using the back your spoon, to create a thick, syrup-like consistency. Set aside and allow to cool.

Wishing you all a fabulous week of racing, and those of you that have horses running, I will be cheering you on!

Clodagh xx

RASPBERRY & ROSEWATER PAVLOVA

Makes 1 Pavlova

INGREDIENTS

For the pavlova:

9 egg whites

500g caster sugar

2 tsps cornstarch

1 tsp white wine vinegar

1 tbsp rosewater

For the filling:

500ml whipping cream

1 tbsp icing sugar

1 tbsp rosewater

200g fresh raspberries

METHOD:

Preheat the oven to 160°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Use an electric mixer to whisk the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl until firm peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking constantly until mixture is thick and glossy and the sugar completely dissolves. Add the cornstarch, vinegar and rosewater and gently fold until just combined.
Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking tray in a circle shape and use the back of a wooden spoon to shape the meringue into a nest. Place the meringue in the pre-heated oven and turn the heat down to 140°C and bake for 1.5hrs. Once the meringue is baked, turn off the heat, open the oven door and allow it to cool completely.
When the meringue is cooled and ready to serve you can start assembling the filling. You don’t want to add the cream too far in advance as it will soak into the meringue. Gently whip the cream until it thickens and then whisk in icing sugar. Fold in the rosewater and then spoon the filling into the centre of the meringue and add the fresh raspberries on top.

Kissing Spines Syndrome

By Rolf Johnson

When the trainer of Best Mate, one of only four chasers to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, says she would be delighted to take out her licence again…

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When the trainer of Best Mate, one of only four chasers to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, says she would be delighted to take out her licence again just to train your horse, you sit up and not just take notice but hold your breath – and then whistle a happy tune.

Having surrendered her licence, which she held for nearly thirty years, Henrietta Knight has been reinvigorated by involvement in the nuts and bolts of racing. At her base, built on an old tennis court at West Lockinge, Oxfordshire, she is helping kick start the careers of young horses and restoring those who have become problematical or jaded.

Her latest project was Felony and ‘Hen’ has spared no effort to get to the bottom of a horse who promised the world in his early races with Nicky Henderson.

But first, a bit more on why her involvement is inspirational.

“Horses that come to me have to go back to the basics and regain confidence. It is all about them enjoying it. More than anything I get pleasure seeing young horses jumping, and helping horses which have had problems. Keep everything simple and keep horses relaxed, that’s the most important thing in training.”

Henrietta Knight and Best Mate

Felony had a singular problem. After the promising beginning including a second placing at Warwick, in his last two races he hadn’t been making the correct ‘shape’ over his hurdles and was just not competitive.

“He’d become unsettled, unpredictable, wild even,” said Henrietta. “Nicky said there might be something wrong with his back. Felony held his head high in the loose school and the faster he went the more erratic he became. Something was hurting.”

Felony’s problem comes under the veterinary heading “kissing spines” - overriding or impinging dorsal spinous processes (DSP) – the tall blades of bones which point upwards from each vertebrae of the horse’s backbone.  The gap between each DSP allows the back, supported by ligament and muscle, to move freely at exercise, to carry the rider at speed.

Kissing spines sounds almost what you’d wish for but if a horse gets them that essential gap may close, the bones even fuse. At exercise the horse can feel wooden or tense to the rider. Surgery, practiced in Felony’s case behind the withers, is on the ligament and muscle which surrounds the vertebrae and which provides them with strength and mobility. It is the pressure point of a gallop. There is a greater force there than that on similar points of a Grand Prix driver’s anatomy.

Kissing Spines Operation

Surgery is mastering the problem, terminating the days of charlatans and quacks. Henrietta swaps stories of  scallywags such as the one who would whistle to distract the animal before thumping it between the eyes. Another would swing from the eaves of the stable to dance on the horse’s back. Sometimes, coincidentally, there would be improvement – if not for long.

“We were lucky when we had Best Mate,” says the master horsewoman. “He was an immaculate jumper and that helped him with his inherent soundness. He never made a mistake and with him and Edredon Bleu (Queen Mother Champion Chase winner) that is probably what won them their races at Cheltenham.”

Best Mate’s last race was at Exeter in 2004. He was prevented from attempting a record fourth Gold Cup by a burst blood vessel that winter and when he came back at Exeter the following year, he died, aged only eleven, at the course.

Henrietta Knight was firm in her judgement. “Now Felony’s had the operation and had his stitches removed I think he’ll be a different animal. I think he will win races; if I was training again I’d love to have a go with him. He’s a gorgeous horse. He’ll be walking to begin with at Seven Barrows and won’t be long before he’s under saddle again.”

At the time, confronting media complaining about her oh-so-sparing public appearances with Best Mate, she said: “I was trying to get the best out of him, not trying to compare him to Arkle”. That was her axiom. Crowds flocked every time he raced. One publication called her (in by no means an unfriendly way) “a latter-day Margaret Rutherford” (a national treasure and a blithe spirit of the 50s and sixties theatre and film). Not a bad comparison.  In her own characteristic way Henrietta told everyone, before Best Mate’s third Gold Cup: “The lucky ladybirds have appeared again in my bathroom.”  

That was fifteen years ago – there has been no diminution in her powers – and the revival of Felony could be the next chapter in the saga of one of racing’s best-loved and respected characters.

Out And About With The Highclere Camera

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