Monday 25 September 2017

Tea for three on day to remember

Terry Biddlecombe looks on at Ascot racecourse
Terry Biddlecombe looks on at Ascot racecourse

Eamonn Sweeney

Terry Biddlecombe, who died last week at the age of 72, was very possibly the nicest sportsman I've ever interviewed. Which is why I'm pleased I didn't manage to do away with him in 2001.

Biddlecombe, National Hunt champion jockey in 1965, 1966 and 1969, and his wife, the great trainer Henrietta Knight, were visiting Cork in the run-up to that year's Cheltenham Festival to have a look at some point-to-point meetings. I went along to interview them at Ballymaloe House.

All was going swimmingly as myself, Biddlecombe and Knight strolled around the grounds with photographer in tow when suddenly I had the brilliant idea that a picture of the dynamic duo sitting on a nearby fence might make a fantastic shot. The snapper looked sceptical but deferred to my superior expertise. And up on the stile hopped Terry and Henrietta.

Next second there was a terrible 'craaaaaaaaaaack' sound as the fence gave way and the great trainer and the legendary jockey fell backwards a considerable distance on to the grass. "They're going to sue us for this," said the photographer. I contemplated flight.

But when the pair regained their footing it was to the accompaniment of hearty laughter. I suppose one advantage in a career spent as a jump jockey is that it teaches you how to take a fall. But also it was pretty obvious they weren't the type of people who'd make a fuss. In fact, they went out of their way to try and make us forget our embarrassment even though they suggested it might be a good idea not to use the photos.

There are times when you interview somebody and their friendliness, enthusiasm and downright good manners make it an experience you never forget. Paul O'Connell, Steve Collins and Dara ó Cinnéide come to mind in this respect for me. The opposite can happen too but I won't name names because we all have our off days. But I don't think I ever enjoyed an interview as much as I did when I met Terry Biddlecombe and Henrietta Knight.

He was a fund of stories, a man who seemed truly content in himself, having won a tough battle with booze and made a happy marriage. She was a more reserved character but also immensely charming and intelligent and we whiled away a good bit of the evening polishing off tea and cakes. It was like a slightly more sedate version of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

The strange thing is that by the time I left Ballymaloe it looked likely that the interview had been in vain because Knight had received a phone call telling her Foot and Mouth disease had broken out in England. Biddlecombe reminisced about the great outbreak of 1967 and the piles of dead animals being burned in the English countryside. There would be no Cheltenham Festival, he told us. And he was right.

But the year after that when Henrietta Knight saddled the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Best Mate, I was delighted for her and her husband, as I was when the horse went on make it a hat-trick. And when last week I heard he had died I thought, as I did that day in Ballymaloe, of Dr Samuel Johnson's comment about Edmund Burke, that if you took shelter from a storm with him for five minutes it would be long enough to let you know you'd been in the presence of an extraordinary man.

That was Terry Biddlecombe. God rest him.

Irish Independent

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