Cheltenham on Thursday, and many a racegoer gazed affectionately at the popular, veteran grey who paraded before the start of the Gold Cup. Oh, and the 1990 winner Desert Orchid was there, too. There's just no mistaking Jim Lewis, the owner's owner whose white hair announces his presence like a beacon in any parade ring. And, lest there be any confusion, there's the Villa garb. Think of an elderly man with a claret-and-blue football scarf draped round his neck and your first thought is of the irascible Alf Garnett. But Lewis is the antithesis of TV's fictional Hammers supporter. Best Mate's owner, always gregarious yet famously humble, is genuinely one of the good guys.
Indeed, so enthusiastic was the backslapping and hand-thrusting late on Thursday afternoon as a 57,000-plus crowd still revelled in the majesty of Best Mate's triple Gold Cup crown that he was scarcely allowed to depart. "I had to put on my daughter Samantha's hat and keep my head down, otherwise I would have never got out of the racecourse," Lewis recalled in his exquisite Brummie brogue the following morning as he recovered at his home in the Severn-side village of Callow End, under the Malvern Hills, from the previous night's exertions.
"My brother and I started out at our local, the Blue Bell, where we had a drink with the lads. Incredible scenes there. Then it was on to the Old Bush, where we had fish and chips and champagne. A wonderful combination. We sang every song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein book. We eventually arrived home at quarter to one; we watched the video of the race again and the TV reviews and then played it again. Finally, we both fell asleep on the settee at about quarter past three."
Yesterday, he was at Villa Park by invitation of chairman Doug Ellis, to display the Gold Cup itself before the game against Blackburn. "It's a great honour for me. When I was a kid I used to get in for nothing. I'd get someone to lift me over the turnstiles. At least now I'm getting an invitation! To run on the pitch in your 71st year is pretty special." Only a cynic would suggest that the spectacle of a cup, any cup, being brandished at Villa Park must come as something of a cultural shock for the home faithful...
Racehorse ownership: it's not unlike being chairman of a football club. A daunting responsibility, involving the investment of vast amounts of money, it can be a thankless occupation at times. Own a winner, and you're a lucky bastard. How much did you have on? Why didn't you tell me? A loser when well-backed, and there will probably be some embittered gambler who insinuates you're a cheat.
You would have to journey many miles, though, to find anyone who begrudges Lewis and his wife, Valerie, their successes with the people's prince. "I simply believe that racing belongs to everybody. You don't have to be a millionaire," says Lewis. "You've every right mentally to adopt a horse. The fact that mine's been adopted by so many people flatters and delights me."
Valerie shares his passion for the Turf. "This morning wouldn't be the first time we've fought to read the Racing Post," Lewis says. "But neither of us are big punters. Her only bet is two quid each-way. I'm a tenner man. If I really fancied something I'd have fifty quid. I've got mates who frighten me to death. I tell them, 'I don't want to know how much you've put on because you make the sense of responsibility worse for me'."
On Friday morning, Lewis had already sent a congratulatory fax to Best Mate's trainer, Henrietta Knight, and received a reply. That is the only way they communicate away from the course. Just another of their countless superstitions, which are enough to make a Haitian witch-doctor appear an advocate of conventional medicine. "I'm very superstitious, but I have nothing like the A-to-Z of directions which have to be absolutely correct for Henrietta. Like I put the wrong coat on yesterday, and I had to ask a neighbour to bring it [the correct coat] to the course for me. It arrived about half an hour before the race. I'd have got a right rollicking from Henrietta if I hadn't got it on."
He adds: "What's happened is that we've been blessed with some incredible luck. You think, 'To hang on to this, I've got to do what I did before'. My wife was saying that she's been to Cheltenham for four years running now in the same coat. 'Everybody will think I've got nothing else,' she said. I told her, 'I don't care what they think; you're wearing it'."
The faxes exchanged between owner and trainer will also have broached future plans, and the possibility of contesting next month's Heineken Gold Cup at Punches-town. After Thursday's triumph, in the tent behind the weighing room in which an anguished Knight had watched the race unfold through fingers covering her eyes, and which later somehow accommodates about 50 journalists as a makeshift media room, the Wantage trainer was cautious in the extreme about such a possibility.
By the following day she had dismissed the idea, which is a disappointment to Lewis. "I'd like to take him there because they always give us such a tremendous welcome," says the owner, "but we have to consider how much petrol there is left in him this season. Of course, he had a hard race, but I can think of one or two tougher races he's had, including the King George VI Chase [at Kempton in 2002] that he won with Tony McCoy on board."
Most importantly, the nine-year-old, injury permitting, will return to Cheltenham's amphitheatre of dramas next year. "I'm sure we will," says Lewis, "although it's such a daunting experience for Henrietta and Terry [Biddlecombe, the trainer's husband and assistant]. They are utterly conscientious and dedicated in the way they prepare the horse for the race, and it drains them." Despite public confidence, there were still unpredictables about this year's renewal of jump racing's centrepiece. What, specifically, if the torrent which immediately followed the race had come a day earlier? Arguably, it could have made a crucial difference if it had swept in from the west an hour earlier, given the gelding's preference for good ground.
"Once the rain came we were concerned about it, obviously," says Lewis. "I was prepared to be beaten. But he's got something new on his CV now. It confirms that he's got guts. He had to battle and he was quite prepared to do it. We saw a different Best Mate." A hard nut, prepared to use his metaphorical knuckle-duster? "He took his coat off and rolled up his sleeves," agrees Lewis, with the admiration of a father eulogising over his son. "He can be a street-fighter when he needs to."
Comparisons with the Sixties equine icon Arkle, who won 22 of his 26 races, will long be debated, but they are, as Lewis stresses, invidious. "I saw two of Arkle's three Gold Cups and he was regarded as something god-like. But there will never be a true comparison with Best Mate, regardless of it being different eras, simply because Arkle took everybody on and carried any weight. In handicaps, he carried 12st 7lb against horses carrying 10st.
"Henrietta and I will never let that happen to Best Mate. I'm just proud that people feel they can talk about our horse and Arkle in the same conversation."
Lewis, the son of an engine driver, developed an interest in racing and gambling as a boy. "I used to take my father's bets to the back-street bookies. In the Forties, it was all illegal of course. Later, I started having a dabble myself. I did a paper round and delivered to Bromford Bridge [the long-defunct Birmingham Racecourse]. On the way I read all the naps in the newspapers. When we got married I promised Valerie that, one day, I would buy her a racehorse."
He was true to his word. Pearl Prospect was their first winner, and it was trained by Knight, who had just begun her training career in earnest. "It was pure chance. I was in a coffee shop and saw a copy of The Field magazine," says Lewis, who was formerly the managing director of the Silentnight bed company and later started a business importing pine furniture. "On the front, there was Henrietta, with an article about how she had taken out her National Hunt trainer's licence. I thought, 'She might have beginner's luck. Let's give it a go'.
"We met up, and we've been good mates ever since. Her strength is utter dedication to the horses. She loves them. She's meticulous, and being an ex-biology teacher, she knows everything about how they work. She's thorough to a point that she makes herself ill. Then along came Terry [the former champion jockey], and what a combination that is. He knows every blade of grass on every racecourse in the country. Then there's Jim [Culloty, the jockey]. It's a dream team."
He adds: "I said to Henrietta on Wednesday, 'Hen, whatever happens tomorrow, I want you to know I appreciate everything you've done. What will be will be. You can do no more'. She said, 'You'll have me crying in the minute'. By half past three on Thursday, we were all in tears."
Together with even the most stone-hearted among those who thronged the winners' enclosure as the rain began to fall, and a reign of a true champion continued.
BIOGRAPHY: Jim Lewis
Family: Married to Valerie, two children, Samantha and Marvin.
Major victories: Nakir (1994 Arkle); Edredon Bleu (1998 Grand Annual, 2000 Champion Chase); Best Mate (2002, 2003, 2004 Gold Cup).
Superstitions: The number 15 (lucky); claret-and-blue scarf (he always wears the same scarf, which matches his horses' silks, at the races); carries two mascots: a black cat (with claret-and-blue ribbon) and a claret-and-blue mouse (known as Mighty Mouse) in his pocket.
First winner: Pearl Prospect, 1982.
Favourite horse: Edredon Bleu.
Favourite racing memory: Meeting three generations of the Royal Family.Reuse content