The future of triple Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Best Mate is in the hands of Mother Nature, according to his trainer Henrietta Knight.
Forced to miss his attempt at a fourth title when breaking a blood vessel in his preparations days before the big race in March, the star jumper will embark upon his next campaign at Exeter next month.
That race is a stepping stone to a trip to Haydock’s Betfair Cup, the first leg of the new Betfair Million, a three-legged challenge which also takes in the Stan James King George VI Chase and the Gold Cup itself.
But mindful of the injury which ended Best Mate’s season back in the spring, bookmakers are dismissive of the chances of the Jim Lewis-owned gelding – who will be 11 by the time he returns to Cheltenham next year – winning all three legs.
Totesport make him a 40-1 chance, while it is 6-1 for any horse to take the sponsors’ cash.
Speaking at a media open day at her Berkshire stables, Knight reflected upon the incident on the gallops of Mick Channon which forced the horse to miss his tilt at Cheltenham history.
“Every day it is always in the back of your mind – Terry (Biddlecombe) or I will always make sure at least one of us is watching when he works,” she said.
“But we don’t spend every morning holding our breath. You just hope it doesn’t resurface and a lot of horses do it once and then never again.
“There’s no cure for it. Just the old-fashioned remedy of lots of fresh air and hoping Mother Nature does her thing.
“He was a very sick horse when he came back from Ireland and he needed more time than we could give him. He was very sorry for himself, coughing and having a mucky nose every day, but by the end of January we were having to start preparing him for Cheltenham again.
“When he was just getting really tuned to run, something gave and he burst a blood vessel. But he has had a nice break now and so far he has done nothing to cause us any concern again.
“One thing we won’t ever do again is take him back to that gallop. Horses are like elephants and they remember bad experiences and we won’t ask him to remember what happened that morning.”
Numbers may have been slightly down on previous gatherings, but enthusiasm for Best Mate was unusually high.
“He’s quite fit actually,” said Knight as she cast her eye over the gelding as he posed for the cameras like a professional.
“He’s been back in since the middle of June and he is pretty forward.
“I don’t expect him to win at Exeter as I don’t think he has got the toe to beat two-milers at their own game, but it would be nice to see him run well.”
The motivation for starting Best Mate off in the Haldon Gold Cup on November 1 is that Irish champion Kicking King, winner of both the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup last season, is to pursue a similar campaign before the pair hopefully clash at Haydock as they bid to outline their respective Million aspirations.
“If Kicking King is going to have a prep then we don’t want to be at a disadvantage and a race behind,” Knight explained.
“I don’t like making predictions but he is still a very good horse and still full of enthusiasm.
“I really can’t fault Kicking King. He is a super horse and probably the best around. It’s going to be a very interesting race.”
With Best Mate’s regular rider Jim Culloty having retired during the summer, owner Jim Lewis has got to find a new pilot for his pride and joy.
But Lewis admitted that due to riding commitments of all of the top riders, it might be impossible to retain the services of one jockey for all of Best Mate’s outings this season.
“We have to establish who is available but there is no point ringing up trainers now and asking them if they are going to need their jockeys in certain races,” he said.
“It would be ideal to have someone who could commit for the season.
“Timmy (Murphy) has always been the number one choice but he seems unlikely to be available if David Johnson is going to have runners, and I would have thought that ’AP’ (McCoy) would be in the same position.
“We’ll get the horse right first before we worry about the jockey too much.”
Lewis will have extra cause to celebrate should Best Mate claim the Betfair Million, with the sponsors having given the owner a free £5,000 bet at 33-1 about his horse winning all three legs.
Lewis has pledged to divide his winnings between two charities, the St Richard’s Hospice in Worcester and the Gentleman’s Night Out project for terminally-ill children.
“I wouldn’t give you 33-1 about Best Mate winning all three,” he smiled. “If he wins the first one and comes home sound, I don’t think there’s a horse about that could beat him.”
The three-mile race will also form part of the new North West Masters weekend on November 19 and 20 which sees Haydock on the Saturday and Aintree the following day stage top-class jumps racing, designed to draw visitors to the area, with over half a million pounds in prize-money on offer.