James Lawton: Comparisons can wait as courage of Best Mate wins the day

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History made a huge demand on a champion of good ability and high courage here yesterday. It asked him to be more than a major imprint on the record of the classic jump race. It asked him to match in genius the greatest steeplechaser the world has ever seen. It asked too much - far too much.

History made a huge demand on a champion of good ability and high courage here yesterday. It asked him to be more than a major imprint on the record of the classic jump race. It asked him to match in genius the greatest steeplechaser the world has ever seen. It asked too much ­ far too much.

So it was not the glory of Arkle that Best Mate brought to the damp but cheering valley as he joined the legendary star on the historic mark of three straight Gold Cup victories. It didn't ­ and how could it? ­ have the reach of fantasy; it didn't make the blood sing in the rain.

But then this is what happens when dreams are confused with the realities of any kind of flesh and blood. Best Mate wasn't Arkle yesterday, but what he was was something only the terminally fickle could ever forget. Best Mate couldn't light up the leaden sky. Yet nor could he countenance the idea of defeat. The result was evidence of a heart to put beside the bravest of any which had battled here down the years.

It sometimes happens, of course, that champions fail to find their best. Muhammad Ali didn't always move like Fred Astaire. Sometimes he just had to slug it out. That's what Best Mate had to do on the rising ground yesterday, and for the exulting, rain-soaked throng, the important thing was not the style of the win but that in the end it happened.

Certainly it was enough for Henrietta Knight, who used to teach biology to well bred college girls before fulfilling her dream of moulding one of the great achievers in jump racing.

"Comparisons are odious," said the trainer after rushing into the arms of her tear-stained husband, Terry Biddlecombe ­ a winning jockey in this race 37 years ago ­ after Best Mate had won by half a length from Sir Rembrandt, a horse which had recent performances so poor his trainer was unable to provide an explanation. "Arkle is Arkle, and Best Mate is Best Mate," said Knight, "and I'm very happy he is. I cannot tell you the relief I feel now because all the country wanted him to win. I'll need tranquillisers when he goes for a fourth Gold Cup."

In their relief the Best Mate camp didn't run away from an inescapable conclusion. It was that while we can never with any certainty span the decades in assessing supreme talent in any sphere of sport, some trips in the time machine are just too hazardous. Placing the worthy fighter we saw yesterday alongside Arkle, of the bewitching stride and the never less than lordly demeanour, was suddenly revealed for what it was ­ an act of extreme recklessness, even impertinence.

Best Mate, doggedly piloted by Jim Culloty, battled to the line, pursued by horses which had been so confidently expected to be the most distant hoofbeats but who at perilous moments had seemed to be shutting out the bright light of historic achievement. For Henrietta Knight the trading of a beautiful dream for a saving result was a deal she was obviously delighted to embrace.

Before the race she had written eloquently of that dream, recalling the thrilling vision she had had a few days ago on her Oxfordshire training gallops: "Yesterday I watched the young horses cantering up the hills and I saw my new friend, a magnificent red kite, gliding and swooping over the valleys. The sight of this huge bird, with a wingspan exceeding six feet, provided me with inspiration for Cheltenham. He looked a king, his flight was majestic ­ and he was in total control. Let's hope Best Mate can do the same and reign supreme over his kingdom."

Best Mate couldn't do any of that. He couldn't fly with the kite, he couldn't exert any imperious control. All he could do was win against a field which was supposed to form into a procession when the decisive strides were made. Some professional assessment ­ including that of the Gold Cup-winning jockey, Johnny Francome ­ was that Best Mate's preference for good going would not be a serious inconvenience after the overnight rain.

He would sail through, whatever the heavens sent. That would have been the declaration of an Arkle camp, but that Best Mate wasn't Arkle came in a stream of revelation yesterday ­ and perhaps the most striking was the strategy chosen by Knight and Biddlecombe, and finally executed, with immense trials, by Culloty.

The jockey, who despite the brave sight he made when victory was gathered in, standing in the saddle with three fingers raised, each one denoting a Gold Cup victory, seemed as much relieved as jubilant when he played back the race.

"We walked the course beforehand and said that the only thing to do was go down the inner," reported Culloty. "Down the middle was very cut up with no grass on it ­ so I had to take the gamble as it was so much better on the inner. At times I wasn't getting the best of runs, but what I lost by doing that, I gained by being on the best of ground. No race is a steering job ­ it is a Gold Cup and no quarter is given. He battled on really well and I'm so relieved. We were a little slow over the last ­ and that didn't help."

Nor did that potentially critical buffeting when the leading First Gold, driven hard by Thierry Doumen, came back and then Paul Carberry, on the third-placed Harbour Pilot, attempted to keep the champion trapped inside. These were the moments when the alliance of Knight and Biddlecombe, and the impassioned owner, Jim Lewis, worried that the dream sequence was finally over.

Later, Lewis fought back the tears when he said: "I was so worried, I felt the immense pressure on Henrietta to provide this victory everyone was hoping for, and when someone said, 'Don't worry, Jim Culloty is a cool dude', I thought, 'Yes but I hope he isn't too cool'."

The man from Co Kerry got the job done impressively in the end, launching a magnificent leap at the second last and hanging on with nerve and heart when the outsider Sir Rembrandt asked the last questions going up the hill.

It would all have been splendid beyond the shadow of Arkle, who also wasn't particularly fond of heavy going. But then, as one veteran observer pointed out, there was a big difference. It was that you could have sent him out in the Somme and he would still have run his own race. You could also have thrown in the German artillery for all the difference it would have made. That's the legend, anyway, and last night even the admirers of Best Mate had to agree it was one that had never been so secure.

Three Steps To Immortality Best Mate's Gold Cup Triumphs

2002

1 Best Mate (J Culloty) 7-1

2 Commanche Court (R Walsh) 25-1

3 See More Business (J Tizzard) 40-1

The seven-year-old Best Mate, on just his seventh start over fences, comes from the rear of the field to take up the running before the second last fence and wins by a length and threequarters.

2003

1 Best Mate (J Culloty) 13-8 fav

2 Truckers Tavern (D N Russell) 33-1

3 Harbour Pilot (P Carberry) 40-1

Best Mate is head and shoulders above his rivals on looks and proves equally superior in the race. Always travelling easily, he leads three fences from home and quickens clear to win by 10 lengths.

2004

1 Best Mate (J Culloty) 8-11 fav

2 Sir Rembrandt (A Thornton) 33-1

3 Harbour Pilot (P Carberry) 20-1

The hardest race yet for Best Mate as he is hemmed in by Harbour Pilot and the tiring First Gold on the home turn. Leading at the last he just holds off the thrust of Sir Rembrandt by half a length.

Verdicts of the team behind the triple champion

Henrietta Knight, Trainer

'I thought he'd lost it going to the last but he recovered to show what a great champion he is. He was brilliantly ridden'

Henrietta Knight, 57, a former biology teacher, started training in 1989 and has built her stable at Wantage, Oxfordshire, into one of the best in Britain. Sister-in-law of Lord Vestey

Terry Biddlecombe, Trainer

'I thought Best Mate would dig deep, which he had to. It was a brilliant ride from Jim, but the horse has run his guts out'

Terry Biddlecombe, now Knight?s husband and right-hand man, was champion jump jockey three times in the 1960s, winning the Gold Cup on Woodland Venture in 1967.

Jim Culloty, Jockey

'It looked like I was going well before two out, but I knew I was only all right, and that I was never going to sprout wings'

Jim Culloty, 30, rode his first winner 10 years ago and was champion amateur in 1996. He is one of six jockeys to have won the Gold Cup and Grand National in the same year

Jim Lewis, Owner

'I was ready to lose today, and it will happen one day, but Jim got out of jail and our dream lives on for a bit longer'

Jim Lewis, 69, is now as passionate about racing as supporting Aston Villa, whose claret and blue colours inspired his racing silks. Lewis, a former managing director of a bed-making company, became one of Knight's owners after reading about her in The Tatler

Jackie Jenner, Lass

'The past few weeks were so tense. Hoping to win and expecting to win are very different in terms of pressure. I thought for a moment that the boys had him trapped but Jim and Best Mate are very clever and very brave'

Jackie Jenner, 34, worked for an accountancy firm until following her heart into horse racing. She has ridden in amateurs races and joined Knight four years ago

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