Racing: Best Mate aiming to beat Gold Cup curse with caution

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The Independent Online

It was clear, blue sky over West Lockinge Farm yesterday above a picture of bucolic madness in Henrietta Knight's Oxfordshire yard. There were squabbling ducks in puddles, attack geese at the front door and the clear and present danger of National Hunt's most feared horse in a ring at the rear of the main house.

It was clear, blue sky over West Lockinge Farm yesterday above a picture of bucolic madness in Henrietta Knight's Oxfordshire yard. There were squabbling ducks in puddles, attack geese at the front door and the clear and present danger of National Hunt's most feared horse in a ring at the rear of the main house.

The disturbing news for those who must oppose the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate this season is that the big horse is even bigger, a more muscled and stronger athlete than the seven-year-old which scooted home at Prestbury Hill's foot in March.

The consolations are that Best Mate is likely to run only three times this season and will do so under a near curse which has affected Gold Cup winners for over 30 years now. You have to go back to L'Escargot and 1971 to find a horse which retained the Blue Riband. In the interim, there have been those who did not even manage to win another race.

It was not difficult yesterday to imagine this sequence being interrupted as Best Mate moved languidly around the ring in company with his summer mate from a nearby field, Edredon Bleu. The rejuvenated 10-year-old has already done his bit with a win in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter a week ago. Now the younger horse will attempt to make a successful reappearance himself in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon on Saturday week.

After that it will be the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day (a race in which he finished runner-up to Florida Pearl last year) and after that it will be nothing. Until Gold Cup day at least. "Maybe we're being over-cautious, but we're only going to run this horse a few times," Knight said. "He's worth wrapping up. He's worth putting on a pedestal and being treated a bit special. We want to get him there as well as he was last year.

"Maybe some of the horses [other Gold Cup winners] have had a lot of racing. I don't know why there is this hoodoo, but Grade Ones do take a lot out of a horse and, for that reason, you could say we are doing nothing but good for Matey. He's getting plenty of time to recover."

However, while his programme may be lenient, Best Mate will be just one of the lads at home. "He won't be treated any different to last year otherwise something is sure to go wrong," Knight added. "We must treat him as we have always treated him, from the day he came in the yard as an untried four-year-old. If we start singling him out and wrapping him in cotton wool that will be when things go wrong. He has got to take his chance in the same way he always has.

"I'm glad I've got a yard full of horses so I can concentrate on other races. That takes my mind off one horse."

Several of these significant others will be in action at the first major meeting of the National Hunt season, Cheltenham's three-day Open, which starts in the Cotswolds on Friday.

Martin Pipe, as ever, is the big player in the main race of the meeting, Saturday's Thomas Pink Gold Cup, which he has already won five times. No 6 is already assured according to the betting, with the champion trainer's Chicuelo a 7-4 chance (from 5-2) with Coral yesterday. Knight is doubly represented in the contest by the rising Perfect Fellow, the mount of stable jockey Jim Culloty, and Foly Pleasant, who was second to Pipe's Shooting Light last year.

The following day, West Lockinge saddle a stalking horse in Stars Out Tonight for the Independent Novices' Chase, a race which will determine the Arkle Trophy betting for the Festival. How he performs against the Cheltenham ante-post favourite, Paul Nicholls's Azertyuiop, as well as Fait Le Jojo from Philip Hobbs's yard, will be a barometer to the prospects of Knight's leading two-mile chasing hope, Impek.

The trainer's pick of the meeting, though, is Inca Trail, who runs in Sunday's bumper. It is the same race in which Best Mate won his first start under Rules in 1999 and an appropriate setting-off point in Britain for the great horse's full-brother.

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