Best Mate shapes up to fill the Arkle role

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The Independent Online

There are faster horses than Best Mate, others slicker over fences, but very few more proficient when the two elements are combined.

There are faster horses than Best Mate, others slicker over fences, but very few more proficient when the two elements are combined.

Henrietta Knight's young chaser continued his stellar ascent here yesterday with an extravagant success in The Independent Novices' Chase to establish himself, along with Istabraq, as one of the bankers for the Cheltenham Festival in four months' time. Coral will allow you just 4-1 that he goes on to success in the Arkle Chase, also sponsored by The Independent, in March.

The name of Arkle is becoming a constant appendage to the monster five-year-old. Even his normally reticent connections are unashamed about mentioning him in conjunction with the great horse. "The horse really does think he is Arkle, even if that is a bit of an injustice to Arkle," Knight said. "He's a very proud horse and he takes life with such an amazing air.

"Every time he comes out of his stable he seems to say 'look at me, aren't I wonderful?'. He is a bit special. Every part of his body moves when he moves. He has got a wonderful temperament with it."

It is, however, the physique which racegoers can most easily judge. Best Mate, in company with his main market rival, Dusk Duel, looked quite inspiring yesterday for this his reconnaissance mission before the Festival. A double rainbow which spanned the course seemed to point to what would be on offer next spring.

The early moments of the two-mile contest saw Best Mate well to the fore as Prancing Blade and Nordic Crest formed the bookends for the odds-on favourite up front.

There was, however, no rush, and Jim Culloty shuffled his mount back into midfield as the pathfinders hammered on. Four out, though, at the big ditch at the top of the hill, came near calamity. Best Mate charged the fence in a manner which would have been terminal for horses of lesser proportions. "It's a tricky fence which catches out novices time and time again and even catches out handicappers," Culloty reported. "He met it on a stride when he should have shortened up, but he just rushed it instead.

"It was a bad mistake, which would have stopped other horses dead. He hit it hard and it took him a minute to recover. I was struggling for a few strides. But once I gave him a chance he came back on the bridle hard."

Dusk Duel and Fatehalkhair took advantage of the lapse to put a generous margin between themselves and the favourite. But then it was Dusk Duel's turn to falter, and his error at the second last was far more destructive. Nicky Henderson's runner slipped on landing and struggled to get back up, his legs splayed and twitching like a Serengeti newborn.

By the time Dusk Duel and Norman Williamson had righted themselves Best Mate had become a speck. He charged up the straight to put 18 lengths between himself and Fatehalkhair. But at least Williamson saw more of Best Mate than the gelding's trainer.

Knight, as is customary, could not bring herself to spectate. As Best Mate crashed through the brush she was pacing around at the gate to the main car park. She did not watch events, and listened to the commentary in snatches. "As usual, I didn't see the race," the trainer said. "I shut my ears for most of it as well. I knew nothing about the mistake, as I made sure that I did not hear the commentary until they were going to the last and, by then, it was all over."

Knight, the well connected former biology teacher, was met in the winners' enclosure by the other half of racing's oddest couple, her husband Terry Biddlecombe. The former champion jockey has been through a lot and is in possession of a body which took a pasting both in falls and at post-victory celebrations. If he left it to science, then science would contest the will.

Yet even Biddlecombe believes he has not seen much like Best Mate before, and again the great name came up. "He's very exciting, as nice a horse as we've seen for years," Biddlecombe said. "The one thing about him is that he's got a gear. When he jumped the second last today he was absolutely flying. Nothing would have beaten him. Not even Arkle."

It was an appropriate finale to a three-day meeting which had provided record crowds and an admirable introduction to the National Hunt season proper.