Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Premier Information: Terry Biddlecombe memorial: Alastair Down's tribute

Reproduced by Premier-Information courtesy of the Racing Post

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My mother was, by common consent, an outstanding beauty - okay, it skips a generation - and every year my Dad, a racing man to his core, would take her off for the three days of the Cheltenham Festival.

They stayed with a legendary friend who had been the escape manager at Colditz at his home on the banks of the river at Upton on Severn.

On the eve of the 1967 Cheltenham Gold Cup they dined at the Swan at Upton on Severn and in the bar there was a boisterous group of jockeys, none of whom was on the tonic water, and very much the life and soul was an unmistakable blond figure who was telling all and sundry that he would win the big race the next day on Woodland Venture.

The more he told them, the more they laughed. But Mum looked and listened. Looked more than listened, I suspect.

History relates that the next day Terry Biddlecombe, fortified by a bottle of Bollinger among friends in the weighing room, went to post on Woodland Venture as a 100-8 chance for the Gold Cup and won by three-quarters of a length and two from that great grey Stalbridge Colonist and the third-placed What A Myth who was to win it two years later.

The race was worth £7,999 to the winner and Terry's percentage may just about have paid for the subsequent blizzard of champagne and the next couple of hundred sessions in the Gloucester Turkish Baths.

Dad did his brains at the meeting and Mum, having only had the single £10 bet over the three days, spent the journey back to Kent counting her £120 and telling the old man that all he needed to do was to back that "rather nice Mr Biddlecombe."

Curiously enough, though Terry was, when it came to women, a serial seal clubber against whom they would pass laws today, my Dad was also a Biddlecombe fan - women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be like him and instead of having the green eye about it tended to think "good luck to the old bollocks" - unless, of course, they were the proud Dads of adventurous and good-looking daughters in which case they would surround the house with barbed wire and set up a few machine-gun turrets.

All to no avail of course - if Fort Knox held girls instead of gold Terry would have found his way in (if you'll excuse the expression).

We are gathered here today because of a life that ended on January the 5th. I was abroad and received a text from Hen which began with the words "Terry died suddenly but peacefully this morning".

I looked out over blue sea and clear sky but my mind had already gone elsewhere, travelling back and away to other days - to those images of the Sixties and that brute strength, booting them home on the box in the old lost beauty of black and white to an O'Sullevan soundtrack.

Pain was Terry's constant companion and every day a fifteen-round bruising battle with the immoveable malice of the scales. But neither struggle ever lessened him - he bulldozed through life, fearing no-one, always standing up for the underdog, issuing a constant stream of never-to-be-forgotten obscenities and, with that mischievous smile, ever on the look out for another treble at Ludlow when as we all know only two of the winning rides that afternoon were booked through Weatherbys.

I was nine when Terry won his first jockeys title in 1965 - that's nine years not stone (I was already ten by then) - and he was very simply a hero of my childhood.

And please don't ever fall for that cynical old lie that you should never meet your heroes because there is always that one in a million who has the thumping, shining, life-affirming humanity, humour and sheer heart that makes you understand that among the everyday ebb and flow of life sometimes stride those rare folk who light up a get together.

When Terry died a floodgate of fondness opened. Stories of his legendary antics, few of which could be repeated before the watershed, were everywhere and we will hear more from the brilliant David Mould, that stylist's stylist both in and out of the saddle, and also Bill Smith, who had a style all his own, but is a man in the Biddlecombe tradition not least because in his Sixties he is dad to young twins.

But if you want a measure of Terry the man then look around this room at the wonderfully diverse cross-section of society here to pay tribute, people who will always miss Terry but would never miss being here for him.

There are folk from every corner of these islands, the young and the old, the great, good and the happily plain humble, the well-heeled and mildly skint - everyone drawn to the magnet that was Terry, one of jump racing's beating hearts.

Almost every soul in this room, which looks out across a view as sacred to us as any consecrated ground, is here because a flawed, fabulous, foul-mouthed, fantastic man showed us some small kindness or consideration we have never forgotten.

Above all he bestowed on us the priceless gift of laughter. When Terry died, there was no increase in the number of saints in heaven. And he'll have had to do some time down there, and if the devil allowed mobile phones he'd have texted by now to the effect that "it's hot down here and there's not a drink to be found but they tell me that in another 120 years I can go upstairs and see Hen."

And here we come to the nub of the matter. When Terry Biddlecombe came back from Australia in 1992, the hero of years past was but a husk of his former self - not merely on the slide but shot to bits.

Forget peering into the abyss, Terry had fallen into it. His old friends had never wavered in their affection but the cavalier had lost his invincible air.

The uplifting truth is that plenty rallied round him - the ones who were a genuine help know who they are and I will not list them here because they did it out of tough love rather than the need to be recognised.

But with help from the Injured Jockeys' Fund he dried out in the nick of time at Farm Place - I was never grand enough to go there and had to settle for the Priory - and to his eternal credit Terry Court gave him a job at Brightwells.

At a show in Malvern Terry was entrusted with looking after the three judges: Henrietta Knight, Jack Doyle and Toby Balding. He didn't fancy Doyle or Balding much but there, like a bunny in the headlights but not yet wearing the Playboy Club outfit, was Miss Knight.

Hen, truth be told, wasn't going great at the time and confesses that she was doing 8-10 grand a year on Chablis - just playing at it really.

When Terry first went round to supper he opened the oven and saw there were ten plates warming up "how many are we?" he asked "just the two of us!"

A little bit of Dutch courage had been required before entertaining racing's favourite force of nature. As it is half-term and there may be children present, we can draw a veil over the details of subsequent events.

But if I was asked to come up with a more heartwarming and uplifting tale than that woven by Henrietta and Terry I would not dare to invent it. Somehow a door was flung open and happiness walked in never to leave.

Hen, you gave a man we thought had slipped through the duckboards and into the mire not just a second life but an amazing one. You are of course, not entirely as you appear, and while you claim to have learnt all sorts of things from Terry it is my opinion that his vocabulary was actually expanded by yours.

And it might have been that Hen and Terry would have chuntered away quietly and happily enough, all the flames burning, and passed into genteel obscurity known only to those who knew them already.

But sometimes in this world legends spring, seemingly unbidden, from out of the grass and rewrite our ideas of the possible. From an Irish point-to-point a horse arrived just beyond the outskirts of Wantage, a chaser in the rough who physically looked almost too good be true.

From the very first Terry and Hen believed in Best Mate almost as much as they did in each other.

There are those here today for whom the deeds of Arkle stay fresh in the memory never to be matched. But you need to be 60-plus fully to recall the enormity of those times.

For another generation, among the defining images of their sporting lives will always be Best Mate. Not just for his three Gold Cups but for the joyous and indelible sights drummed into our souls by the man and woman behind the horse.

During the Gold Cup Henrietta would be hiding somewhere in the suburbs of Tewkesbury while Terry watched the great race unfold knowing that the life of the woman he loved and his personal redemption would be decided over our sport's defining three and a quarter hellish miles out there.

I defy anyone not to be moved by their tear-stained and climactic clinch after Best Mate's third Gold Cup. And it mattered to us - the hopelessly enraptured viewer - not merely because of the horse's triumph but because the people who brought it to us were folk we had grown to love.

I am 58 years old, the six great chasing figures of my lifetime have been Arkle, Desert Orchid, Red Rum, Kauto Star, Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe. And the most remarkable is probably Terry.

In a comeback that would make Lazarus blush, he returned from oblivion and rose to a last fair morning that endured for 20 years courtesy of the woman who loved him.

Next month there won't be just be the few hundred of us here as there are this afternoon but a couple of hundred thousand over the four days. Being here for the Festival is a matter of passion and something which reaches into our very being.

We will come here as inheritors of Cheltenham's unmatched history woven by man and horse. For all the glory, this is not an uncomplicated or easy place, the prints on this special ground are made by tragedy as well as triumph. Horses draw us back, but people also.

Terry was a ruler of this roost decades ago and he returned to be so again. Name me another whose second life was so special and prompted such widespread joy. The old roisterer and rooster reincarnated. And he knew where the magic lay.

When Terry was asked what was his greatest triumph, the thing that meant more to him than anything else he would check the room was empty of anyone answering to the surname Knight and reply "It's her. Hen."

When he died, it was not in the well-meaning but clinical anonymity of a hospital. He had, at the end, the unmatched consolation of being in his own home and surrounded by the woman he really did love. So RIP - TWB, most admirable of all rough and ready rogues.

Farewell, Terry, and our undying thanks for your charisma, the gales of laughter and your simple kindness.

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