Best Mate digs deep to join Gold Cup elite

THERE is a time in every sporting career when the hero gets overturned by the guy next in line, or the no-hoper or by the fairy story - and that happened to Best Mate at Leopardstown yesterday when he was beaten by Beef or Salmon.

But at Cheltenham on March 19 last, tens of thousands of people held a collective breath for fear of such an event.

In the end, though, the hero prevailed - admittedly not by as impressive a margin as many would have liked - the collective relief reflected the fact the public hero had not been humiliated and even though this was not a vintage Gold Cup, the right result emerged: Best Mate won.

It was the right result for racing and the right result for a racing public for whom heroes are not exactly thick on the ground.

Jim Lewis’s wonder horse was attempting to lay claim to one of the single most awesome reputations in the sport’s long history and while we are all used to listening to the maxim ‘there’ll never be another Arkle,’ Best Mate was doing his best to create his own legacy.

In the near 40 years since the Duchess of Westminster’s great gelding swept all before him through the 1960’s, forcing the handicappers to create one weight grade for the Tom Dreaper charge and one for everyone else, we have waited in vain for a successor. Best Mate may not fit that bill, but, he’s doing his bit.

There never has been another Arkle and most likely never will, but that is not to say horses from the modern era cannot go out and at least try and emulate some of his achievements, even though different times, circumstances and training methods render such pursuits academic.

Three Gold Cups was the final tally for the Co Dublin-trained legend and last March, Best Mate set out to match that in a race that was to be one of the most testing, sapping and tactically demanding races seen at Prestbury Park for many years.

OK, so Golden Miller won five Gold Cups for the eccentric Dorothy Paget between 1932 and 1936, but that is nearly too far back for the general public to either remember or comprehend. It is almost certainly too long ago for the media to make any fuss of it. Arkle is Best Mate’s only target today and winning this race and - thinking the unthinkable - going on for a fourth in 2005 are the stuff which makes people want to breed, own and train national hunt horses.

Being trained by a seemingly batty former biology teacher, assisted by her recovering alcoholic former champion jockey husband might not impress many outsiders, but the screwball duo of Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe are the main inspiration behind the Best Mate phenomenon and their cotton-wool treatment of this latterday equine superstar has sustained his well-being and longevity and in turn giving him the chance to land as many prizes as they dare aim him at.

“I thought we were beaten coming to the last,” Knight recounted after the third win and after herself and Biddlecombe once more renacted their joyful pas de deux en route to the winners’ enclosure. “But he’s tough, too,” she added somewhat unnecessarily, having watched, along with the rest of us as Sir Rembrandt and Harbour Pilot chased Best Mate down to a snorting, sweating, wild-eyed climax in which he prevailed by just half a length from a fast closing Sir Rembrandt and with the first four home covered by only four lengths. The Cheltenham crowd had gasped collectively as the race came to its conclusion, delighted and relieved that the dream had not been shattered and that the fairy story was not re-written.

“He was brilliantly ridden,” Hen allowed, giving overdue credit to Kerryman Jim Culloty.

Undoubtedly, as is the way of these things, partnerships and friendships disintegrate under the pressures brought to bear by trying to win three Gold Cups and the dark and provocative skies over Cheltenham that afternoon predicted a foreboding outcome. But as it transpired - and under an inspired ride from a man who will never get as much credit as the horse he rode - Hen and Terry and Jim and Matey, had enough planning, resourcefulness and talent to get them through to the feted and hysterical celebrations accorded the victors.

The mean-looking French-trained First Gold tried to break the backs of the field by cracking a punishing pace from the moment the tapes went up.

Watching the race from beside the second fence, the obstacle which would be the last after three and a quarter miles over treacherous Cotswold terrain, the level of that pace was brought clearly into focus when Paul Carberry was nearly catapulted into the sky when Harbour Pilot hit the unyielding birch with sickening ferocity and only the jockey’s innate sense of balance allowed him stay in the plate.

Indeed Carberry’s tactical role later in the race - riding to make life distinctly uncomfortable for the Kerryman and his mount two out in order to try and give his own horse some hope of a Blue Riband success - was to come into the sharp focus of newspaper and television attention later.

But, to Culloty’s immense credit, he brushed aside the flak being aimed at his countryman Carberry. “That’s his job,” he remarked. “If I was in his shoes, I’d have been trying to do the exact same thing.”

Because of the tacky ground, Best Mate was forced to the inner all the way round the two circuits on a strip of ground the connections had identified as suitable, but this was potentially his downfall as there was no room for escape if anyone else made a mistake along the way.

But he needed that ground to allow him last those three and a quarter miles - three and a half in reality at Cheltenham if you take into account the severity of the climb to the finish.

“It was a nightmare,” Culloty admitted later, in clear knowledge that if the horse lost it could only ever be his fault.

“I didn’t get the cleanest run but it worked in the end, thank God.”

Relief comes in many forms in circumstances as pressurised as this.

The collective gasp from the crowd as Best Mate and Harbour Pilot landed in tandem over the last was one example; another was Knight’s simple delight at having her treasure returned unharmed; while yet another was Biddlecombe’s red-faced bustling blather afterwards that the horse could not have been beaten.

But, adorned in the Aston Villa-inspired claret and blue colours of the disarmingly nice Jim Lewis, Culloty raised three fingers - indicating the third success - for the photographers as he re-entered the parade ring and on into the heaving winners’ enclosure.

This was a different type of relief - a joyous release that not only put the naysayers in their box, but also wove him into a neat bit of history - even if that history may ultimately afford the horse with the majority of the credit.

In terms purely of form it would be hard to rate this as Best Mate’s finest hour, but it was still as emotional and thrilling as the best racing should be.

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