30 March 2003

While the Gold Cup-winning trainer eyes a double, Richard Guest has the chance to shine in and out of the saddle

A special woman and another fame-thrusting horse: Best Mate’s trainer Henrietta Knight holds her Grand National hope Chives as she bids to become the first trainer in 27 years to complete the Cheltenham-Aintree double. It would be quite a story but, as ever with the National, the two of them are only the beginning of the tale.

For a start, Henrietta has two other runners; the safe-jumping Maximize and the talented, if slightly under-achieving, Southern Star. Chives’ owner Trevor Hemmings also has not just Southern Star but the Sue Smith-trainer Goguenard to run in his now famous green and yellow quartered colours. But it is Chives’ jockey Richard Guest who takes the ticket. He is not just riding. In his other life as a trainer, near Durham, he will be saddling three hopes for the Aintree jackpot – Red Ark, Red Striker and 13-year-old Red Marauder on whom he won the Grand National in 2001.

It is a cast big enough to crowd out the stage so let’s concentrate on the horse at the centre of it all. Chives has class. Ever since he made his first appearance a winning one three years ago in February, he has looked as if there was a big race in him. Last time out he stretched all but Best Mate in the Gold Cup before finally conceding in the straight. No other National horse could do that. Get your money ready.

Chives is tall, almost 17 hands (5ft 8in) at the shoulder and, while his dark brown frame is long and athletic enough, what really impresses about him is his head. It is a huge, wise, kind, big-eyed, long-eared, old-fashioned head that the Edwardian artist Cecil Aldin immortalised in his illustrations for John Masefield’s ballad Right Royal. That masterpiece was about a fictional National. Chives could be the real thing.

Henrietta finds it hard to curb her enthusiasm but, as a former schoolmistress, curb it she must. “He’s very well,” she says, holding Chives with the unsentimental affection of someone devoted to horses but tough enough to herself ride round the giant fences at Badminton. “His jumping was a bit awkward when he started. He used to launch himself but is more organised now and gets on extremely well with Richard Guest. He seems to have got over his Gold Cup race and he has such a lovely attitude.”

A week earlier Henrietta and her husband Terry Biddlecombe had been the centre of the sporting world as they hugged each other in the blissful aftermath of Best Mate’s triumph. In other professions that achievement might have towered over everything. But at West Lockinge there are some 80 other horses to worry about, Best Mate is being roughed off, the Grand National is coming up, the now famously teetotal Terry and Henrietta are as usual up at 5.30 to feed their athletes.

The only concession they have made to the Cheltenham aftermath is a glorious bedtime cameo in which Biddlecombe turns in early only for Knight to come up and read him the latest batch of mail which at present lies next to their higgledy piggledy kitchen stacked as high as the sorting post at Christmas.

The Best Mate spotlight has made familiar the nooks and crannies of Henrietta’s duck-infested converted farm yard training centre close to the now sold family home near Wantage. But a morning spent there never ceases to delight. Chives comes out of one barn and goes off for a canter with two stablemates. Maximize comes out of another and is loaded into a horse box for the trip to work on Mick Channon’s gallops at West Ilsey. Meanwhile, Southern Star has his chestnut ears tweaked lovingly. They are probably burning from Terry Biddlecombe’s no-nonsense assessment.

“He’s a thinker Southern Star,” says Terry with that rollicking front beneath which is a cute racing brain, “keeps a bit to himself. Now Maximize, I think he will be a great ride round there. He was an eventer before he was a racehorse and ran really well at Cheltenham. Southern Star is a bit different but he just might take to the place. Thinkers often do.”

Up at his Chorley headquarters nobody has ever accused businessman Trevor Hemmings of being faint-hearted. A host of projects he is involved with includes major stakes in the huge new `Blackpool as Las Vegas’ casino development and in Arena which means a string of racecourses and big share of the attheraces TV channel. He wouldn’t swap any of them for a Grand National winner but, as he says, “it would be the icing on the cake”.

“When I was a young man,” he remembers, “I used to love to stand among the crowd on National day, drink the Guinness, hear the music, see the clowns. I loved the whole atmosphere, still do. To have a horse able to run in it is a great thrill but a sobering one too. To lose a horse as good as The Last Fling [who was killed in last year’s race] is not the National memory you want. But the race is a challenge for everyone – and for the horses as well.”

Nobody knows that challenge better than Richard Guest, who two years ago so memorably survived not just the bottomless going but a series of almost saddle shifting blunders to get Red Maruader home. “My three horses will all go there in tremendous shape,” he says of the three `Reds’ – Striker, Ark and Marauder – he will exhibit at his open day at Brancepeth this morning. “But I couldn’t turn down the chance to ride Chives again. He is a big horse but he has learnt to be careful. He could have become a great yoke but he has gone the right way. He really travels. He could be a great ride.”

The long-legged and legendarily canny Guest should be a perfect foil for Chives’ talent, and success at Aintree would be a perfect launch pad into a full-time training career. When people are really set for an event it seems as if all their life has led to this. For Guest, for Knight to crown her annus mirabilis, for Hemmings to reward Aintree’s greatest present supporter, that event now seems to be the 2003 Grand National. For Chives it is almost what he was created for. Destiny is pointing at that handsome head.

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