Thank God for jump racing. The Flat has its glitz and speed and glamour, and we could not help but thrill to the sheer quality on view at Ascot’s Champions Day this year with Solow and Muhaarar strutting their stuff. But as Jack Dowdeswell, champion jump jockey in the days when it was £3 a ride and a fiver for a winner, once said of the Flat: ‘In the end it is just going down and coming back.’ With jump racing there is a story in every race — not just the thrills and spills from extra risks over obstacles but the promising novice chaser who catches your eye and who you follow until he runs three years later in the Gold Cup. There is the patched-up old hurdler patiently nurtured after ‘getting a leg’, who comes back and wins good races, the rough-hewn horse spotted in a farmer’s field and bought for a song who beats the £100,000 French imports at the Cheltenham Festival. Above all, there are the understanding jumping crowds who brave all weathers to follow their sport and who derive as much pleasure from standing by a fence to see the field soar over as they do from backing a 10-1 winner.
The jump-racing season may have been running for a while — Richard Johnson, who has 100-plus winners on the board, is already seeking to seize the champion jockey’s title left open after 20 years by A.P. McCoy’s retirement — but Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting is the transition moment as the top stables introduce their new-season prospects and step up a gear. This October the glorious Gloucestershire venue provided a special treat, unveiling a handsome new grandstand, which blends seamlessly with the parade-ring amphitheatre and which will drive to new decibel levels the reception for Festival winners next March.
For those jumping flavours there was John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed’s right-hand man on the Flat but currently as well the leading trainer over jumps with his well-bred recruits. You know he has a jumping man’s heart when he says of one of his novice chasers, ‘If he was human he’d be a nice chap to go to the pub with.’ There was articulate young conditional Lewis Gordon riding out his ten-pound claim with a coolly timed victory on Dark Spirit for Evan Williams. In darkest wet Wales, Evan conceded, not all the youngsters get through the first winter in his yard: Lewis Gordon is a nice lad who did. There was the usual Irish competition too: Jessica Harrington took one novice chase with Rock The World, bearing the separate Irish colours purchased at a charity dinner by lucky owner Michael Buckley, and Colin Bowe took another with Shantou Flyer.
For many of us, though, perhaps the most vivid Cheltenham memory of all time is of Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe flinging themselves into each other’s arms in March 2002 in joy over the first of the three Gold Cup victories they achieved with Best Mate. The battered blond bomber, a swashbuckling hero to two generations of jump jockeys, and the well-connected ex-schoolmistress with an instinctive eye for jumping quality, were affectionately labelled the Odd Couple and taken to the heart of jump-racing.
You needed only a few hours with them to sense the chemistry and how much they adored each other: one story Terry told in Hen’s presence about a trainer’s wife almost had me blushing but aroused no more than a tolerant chuckle from her. Not surprisingly, then, last weekend’s racegoers were queuing for her to sign copies of the book that every jump-racing enthusiast will want in their Christmas stocking: Not Enough Time (Head of Zeus, £20). Henrietta’s chronicle of their 20 precious years together is a love story in the real sense of those words about her life with the one-time hellraiser and reformed alcoholic. The high points are there, and so are the low ones — she became Terry’s carer in latter days. It is funny, it is searingly honest, it is brave and it is moving. Anybody who can read either the prologue or the conclusion of Not Enough Time without a moistness in the eye must have something other than blood flowing through their veins.
It is not just about life with Terry, the tough guy in the saddle who was so easily moved to tears, the eternal scamp with the ability to charm himself out of every scrape. There are anecdotes too embracing a wide range of owners, jockeys and horses, all suffused with an endearing humanity. Who else but Hen would confess in print to buying new knickers from Marks & Spencer every time she went to stay with the Queen Mother because they would be unpacked by her staff? Amid the stories there are intriguing reflections, too, on how Terry liked horses to be ridden or the qualities the two of them looked for in horses they were prepared to buy. Terry Biddlecombe was larger than life, a leader of the pack, and Hen has done him proud. Not enough time indeed, but it was quality time.