Obituary:Terrence Walter Biddlecombe, jockey

Born: 2 February, 1941, in Gloucester. Died: 5 January, 2014, in West Lockinge, near Wantage, Oxfordshire, aged 72

Terry Biddlecombe: Popular and colourful former champion jockey who helped train Best Mate. Picture: Getty
Terry Biddlecombe: Popular and colourful former champion jockey who helped train Best Mate. Picture: Getty

Terry Biddlecombe was one of the finest jockeys of his era and one of the best-known and most lovable characters of National Hunt racing whose marriage to trainer Henrietta Knight was among the great love stories in sporting history.

He was also instrumental in the career of one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time, having helped Knight discover Best Mate in Ireland many years before the horse won three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups for the stable.

National Hunt will be much the poorer for his passing, since Biddlecombe was hugely popular among owners, trainers, jockeys and punters alike.

His regular appearances on television alongside Knight brought his West Country burr and joie de vivre to a new audience late in life, but for racing fans in the 1960s and 1970s, there was already fulsome appreciation for the fearless jockey who rode more than 900 winners and won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Woodland Venture in 1967.

Born in Gloucester to Walter, a farmer and showjumping enthusiast, and Nancy, Biddlecombe’s prowess in the saddle was obvious from an early age.

His first win was as a 17-year-old aboard Burnella in a novices hurdle at Wincanton in March 1958, in which he beat the great Fred Winter by a head.

In an era of truly outstanding riders such as Winter, Stan Mellor, Josh Gifford and Bob Davies, Biddlecombe was soon at the forefront, his distinctive blond thatch marking him out for spectators. He became the jockey of choice for champion trainer Fred Rimell, and they would form an enduring and successful partnership.

Biddlecombe’s first major win was the Irish Champion Hurdle of 1963 aboard Honour Bound, but his big breakthrough came in season 1964-65 when he became champion jumps jockey with 114 victories, only the fourth rider to break the “ton” mark in a season.

To prove it was no fluke, he rode 102 winners the following season – the first jumps jockey ever to record two seasonal “centuries” – and won the title again. He went on to share the title with Davies in 1969.

The legend of his off-track “activities” began to grow. Nicknamed the Blond Bomber, Biddlecombe’s love of a party and amorous nature were the stuff of mythology – except in his case, the legend was true. He once rode the winner in the opening race at Ludlow, disappeared with a newly met girlfriend, and returned to ride a second winner in the last race, a “hat-trick” that had the weighing room chortling.

He loved the champagne lifestyle but paid for it, enduring many hours of weight loss in steam rooms. Had he also not sustained a whole string of injuries – he split a kidney in one fall and his life was feared for – he might well have won many more races, as his skill at placing horses before a fence was almost unique.

His strength in the saddle also remained formidable. He formed a winning partnership with steeplechaser Gay Trip, trained by Rimell, and won the 1969 and 1971 Mackeson Gold Cups, the top early season handicap at Cheltenham. But injury ruled Biddlecombe out of the saddle in 1970 when Gay Trip won the Grand National under replacement jockey Pat Taafe.

Biddlecombe was aboard Gay Trip when he finished second to Well To Do and Graham Thorner in the Aintree marathon in 1972, the closest he ever came to winning the world’s most famous steeplechase.

Retiring in 1974, Biddlecombe dabbled in media work and farming and went through two marriages, to Bridget and then Ann, emigrating to Australia for a period with the latter.

Alcoholism had him in its grip, but returning to Britain he dried out, and in 1993 he met Henrietta Knight, a successful three-day event rider and former biology teacher turned trainer. The attraction was soon mutual and deep, and he moved into her stables at West Lockinge near Wantage, despite the well-spoken Knight hailing from landed gentry and Biddlecombe being a son of the soil with language to match.

Like Biddlecombe, Knight had endured her battle with the bottle, and both gave each other support as their unlikely “Odd Couple” love story saw them marry in 1995. Working as a true partnership, they created a stable that was to become a real force in the land, with the likes of Queen Mother Champion Chase and King George VI Chase winner Edredon Bleu, Lord Noelie and Impek in the yard.

It was Best Mate who took the unprecedented heights of success, however. The couple both spotted him in an Irish point-to-point and their joint judgment was proved spot-on. Best Mate duly won more than £1 million in prize money, and his hat-trick of Gold Cups in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – the latter two as hot favourite – made him the most popular horse in training.

In all, the gelding won 14 of his 22 races, was second in another seven and only failed to complete once: the 2005 Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in which he collapsed and died.

Knight and Biddlecombe’s grief-stricken faces that day showed how much he meant to them, and the stable never quite achieved that peak again.

Increasingly debilitated by arthritis, in October 2011 Biddlecombe suffered a stroke and was hospitalised for several weeks. Knight surrendered her licence to care for him in his latter days. He had recently contracted a chest infection and passed away peacefully at home on Sunday.

Biddlecombe is survived by Henrietta Knight, and his five children, Laura and Elizabeth from his first marriage to Bridget, and James, Robert and Lucy from his second marriage to Ann. Details of a memorial service are expected to be announced, and given the sheer ebullience of Biddlecombe, it is bound to be a celebration of an uproarious life.