As Best Mate chased equine immortality in his bid to become the first horse since the legendary Arkle to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, he found himself hemmed in, first by the Andrew Thornton-ridden Sir Rembrandt, and then by Paul Carberry on Harbour Pilot just as the 2004 renewal was coming to the boil.
It looked like Best Mate was in peril but jockey Jim Culloty was never worried and Best Mate proved he was as gutsy as he was talented by getting out of trouble and going on to win by half a length ahead of Sir Rembrandt with Harbour Pilot back in third.
“Everybody blamed Paul Carberry for hemming me in but what nobody realises is it was actually Andrew Thornton that hemmed me in at the top of the hill and that’s why I ended up in that pocket,” Culloty says.
“Paul Carberry stuck me in and I took a pull. Then after the third last I pulled out and we were only going down to the second last then. You’re just about to start hitting the rising ground; it’s nearly half a mile from home. If it was happening going to the last it would be panic stations but I had enough horse under me to get me out of trouble.”
Now Kauto Star, should he overcome his 11th-hour injury scare, has the chance of emulating Best Mate’s achievement in winning the Cheltenham showpiece on three occasions. Should he do so he would become the first 12-year-old winner since What A Myth in 1969 and join such luminaries as not just Best Mate and Arkle but also Cottage Rake, who won it three times in a row between 1948 and 1950 and Golden Miller, who triumphed five times in succession between 1932 and 1936.
That’s a pretty select list but while Culloty is reluctant to draw comparisons between Best Mate, Kauto Star and Gold Cup holder and favourite Long Run he feels the horse that made him famous had fewer flaws than the current big two.
‘‘I wouldn’t compare them,’’ he says of Best Mate and Kauto Star. ‘‘They’re very different horses, and the same with Long Run. I’m not saying Best Mate was the best horse ever — I wouldn’t like to brag about that — but he certainly didn’t have some of the flaws that the likes of Kauto and Long Run have. He was a solid, solid jumper, he was a solid traveller, he didn’t know how to run a bad race.
“In all my years riding him he made one mistake at an obstacle, the first novices chase [the Supreme Novices Hurdle] around Cheltenham [when he was beaten by three-quarters of a length by Sausalito Bay in 2000] when he hit the last ditch a clout. That was the only mistake he ever made.’’
It’s remarkable to think that eight years have passed since that memorable day when Best Mate completed his Gold Cup treble. Yet, while Arkle remains revered 46 years after he completed his three-in-a-row at Prestbury Park, there are those who seek to diminish Best Mate’s achievements.
Rivalries make sport. They give achievements context. In boxing, Ali had Frazier. In tennis, Federer has Nadal. In racing, Arkle, famously, had Mill House. Kauto Star had Denman and now has Long Run. Best Mate perhaps suffers due to the fact he never had a rival of comparable class. The horses he beat were talented but he never had a top class rival at Cheltenham.
“Maybe. But another thing to take into account is the three years he won the Gold Cup, he only got his ground in one of those — the first and the last year the ground was a bit soft for him — the middle one it was fast ground and we won half the track.”
Culloty is reluctant to make a firm prediction on who will win this year’s renewal but says he wouldn’t bet against Kauto Star.
‘‘If I was a gambling man I wouldn’t lay him, I’ll put it that way,’’ he says. “He could, no doubt he could, but Long Run could, it’s kind of between the two of them. What else is there?”
I suggest that if connections opt to run Grand Crus in the Gold Cup instead of the RSA he could be a potential fly in the ointment. “I don’t know, everyone goes on about Grand Crus, he’s obviously a good horse but I don’t know,’’ Culloty replies.
You’re not convinced?
‘‘No, I’m not.’’
We’re talking in Culloty’s office at Mount Corbitt, his home in Churchtown, near Mallow in north Cork where he now makes his living as a trainer. Culloty bought the premises in 2002, three years before his retirement in preparation for life after hanging up the saddle.
“I was living in England and I was getting a few quid together basically as I wanted to buy a bit of a farm somewhere in Ireland,” Culloty recalls. “I’m from Killarney and it’s just a bit far west. You need to be a bit more central so my mother spotted this place for sale in the Examiner and I flew over and we came to look at it and I bought it in a couple of weeks. This was about three years before I retired.”
The decision to call time on his career as a jockey wasn’t a difficult one. “I was after a few bangs on the head and they were getting a bit more often,’’ Culloty recalls. “As a rule, jockeys, when they’re young, can take bangs on the head but as you get older you get a little more sensitive to concussion. And I was definitely getting considerably more sensitive to concussion and I just thought I could end up doing long-term damage if I keep going much longer so I pulled the plug.
“It was kind of a turning point in my career, I started riding more in Ireland and I had this place bought and my heart was more with the training side of it so I said f**k it, pull the plug and on to the next thing. I’m glad I did it, I don’t regret it for a minute.”
That’s not to say life as a trainer has been plain sailing. Far from it. The nation’s economic woes have inevitably affected Culloty’s fledgling training career.
‘‘I’ve one main owner and I’ve a couple of other good owners and that’s it,’’ Culloty explains. ‘‘I’d love to have more owners and more horses but in the current recessionary times finding new owners is next to impossible. I have 16 riding out but six of them are four-year-olds. I’ve less than a handful of horses to fly the flag for me.”
Things started well but Culloty’s credentials as a trainer were soon put to the test. “I had a good old start in the first two years and then the horses got sick, there was a problem in the yard, they were running terribly,” he recalls. “The owners were very loyal, they stayed with me and things have turned the corner again. This year I’ve had a very good strike rate and nice horses and things have come together.”
One of those nice horses is Lord Windermere, who Culloty describes as ‘‘the best horse I’ve had”. When we meet it’s just five days after Lord Windermere put up a decent performance to finish fourth behind shock 50/1 winner Benefficient in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown. Lord Windermere had an entry in the Neptune Novices Chase at the Festival but Culloty instead opted for Naas yesterday where the six-year-old won the www.naasracecourse.com Novice Hurdle.
Barel of Laughs was another Cheltenham consideration but isn’t travelling now. Hence Culloty’s yard won’t be represented at the Festival, not that Culloty is worried, having learned an early lesson.
“Early in my career I brought two horses to Cheltenham which shouldn’t have been there and the build-up was very exciting. But when they finished tailed off it was major disappointment. I made a mental note that I’m never again going to bring a horse that I don’t genuinely give a chance to.”
The whip debate had threatened to overshadow the Festival before new British Horseracing Authority (BHA) chief executive Paul Bittar intervened, ordering changes to rules he described as ‘‘fundamentally flawed.”
The general view is that Bittar’s intervention means that a potential crisis has been averted. Culloty is scathing of the original decision to limit the number of times a jockey can hit a horse.
“I think the rules were absolutely fine the way they were. To be honest I’m very disappointed with the jockeys that they didn’t actually go on strike and make a firm stand. Tony McCoy was weak as water in this instance,’’ Culloty says.
“The only reason they [the BHA] did it is because somebody inside an office working for the RSPCA or something said ‘we don’t want you hitting horses anymore’ and they just roll over and take it.
‘‘I rode a winner when I was an amateur for the Queen or the Queen Mother and I hit it 17 times after the last at Fontwell. If I did that today I’d say I’d get six months for it. That mare got up and won a head and she wouldn’t have won if I hit her once less. She responded to every one. She wasn’t doing a stroke and she responded to every single time I hit her. I wasn’t a whip jockey but in certain instances it was necessary.”
Foolishly I ask if he’s happy that the whip doesn’t hurt horses.
“They’re after modifying the whip so much — I should nearly bring one into you there as an example — they’ve got all this air cushion. I could hit you a belt as hard as I could across the back and, fair enough, it would sting a little bit but five minutes later you wouldn’t know you’ve been hit.”
Thankfully he opts against a demonstration as his wife, Susie, walks in. ‘‘Seven years married,” he smiles, “she’s itching like mad!.”
The couple have three children, Art, Eliza and Hugh. Would their father be happy if his kids choose to try and emulate him?
‘‘I’d be delighted. At the same time they won’t be pushed into it. It’s horses for courses and it’s a game you have to love. We’ve got three kids and two of them can take or leave the horses whereas the third fella absolutely loves it. I loved it. I was addicted from the first time I sat on a pony. I was horse mad.’’
He still is.