Festival test for Best Mate

Sue Montgomery says Cheltenham could well glimpse the future today
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The Independent Online

In his pomp there were few faster or more fearless crossers of a fence than Terry Biddlecombe, one of the leading lights of a cavalier generation of jockeys. Now older - but not necessarily wiser - he admits that, in his role as assistant, husband and helpmeet to trainer Henrietta Knight, the sight of a good bold horse leaping for fun still quickens his pulse and stirs old longings.

In his pomp there were few faster or more fearless crossers of a fence than Terry Biddlecombe, one of the leading lights of a cavalier generation of jockeys. Now older - but not necessarily wiser - he admits that, in his role as assistant, husband and helpmeet to trainer Henrietta Knight, the sight of a good bold horse leaping for fun still quickens his pulse and stirs old longings.

Such a beast currently resides at their Lockinge stables, with his regular pilot, young Jim Cullotty, the target for Biddlecombe's pangs of envy. Best Mate, an imposing five-year-old, may be the first genuine star to emerge from the new generation of steeplechasers. He takes centre stage thisafternoon at Cheltenham in the Independent November Novices Chase, a Grade Two contest which will be an early dress-rehearsal for the novice two-mile championship, the Arkle Chase (also backed by The Independent) at the Festival in March.

Best Mate (2.15) was one of the leading novice hurdlers last season, following an admirable and rather unlucky second place in the Supreme Novices at Cheltenham with victory in a Grade Two at Aintree. Even then, Biddlecombe was waxing lyrical about his prowess over the bigger obstacles, and his judgement was confirmed when the Irish-bred bay produced a foot-perfect performance on his chasing debut at Exeter last month.

"He is one of those horses who knows he is special," said Biddlecombe, each of whose dawns is currently brightened when he gives the gelding his morning feed, yesterday. "He has that presence, that self-knowledge, that the good ones have. He has tremendous natural ability and has been an athlete at his fences, with a wonderful attitude, from the first minute."

Best Mate puts Biddlecombe in mind of Gay Trip, his Grand National winner. "He was the quickest and most accurate jumper I ever rode," he said. "Even though he stayed well enough to win a National, he was a two-and-a-half mile horse really, with class. And although we will stick to two-mile targets this season I am sure that in time Best Mate, too, will go on to greater things."

Today's race, which has produced serious performers like Direct Route, Space Trucker, Celibate, Mister Morose and Go Ballistic in the past, will show whether Best Mate deserves the accolades. None of his six opponents is a mug: Prancing Blade has won three novice chases on the bounce and Bold King and Nordic Crest one apiece. And Dusk Duel, preceded by a tall reputation on his fencing debut, was almost his equal as a hurdler.

Best Mate will be at prohibitive odds, but not so Doctor Goddard (2.50, nap) in the feature handicap, the Direct Answers Hurdle. The five-year-old produced a most creditable performance as a novice to take fourth in the Tote Gold Trophy and, with Philip Hobbs' team flying, is preferred to Irish raider The Gatherer.

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