Racing: Best Mate finds Beef Or Salmon too tough

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The Independent Online

It was not really a bad day, but it was a sad day for the horse on a plinth which Best Mate has become. The triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner lost the Lexus Chase here yesterday, to an old foe in Beef Or Salmon, but, most seriously of all, he appeared to lose the faith. Not the unreserved support of the generous crowd or even those who had joined combat with him, but of his trainer herself.

Henrietta Knight has at times referred to Best Mate as the new Arkle, but that was a comparison she found hard to connect standing by her shattered horse in the paddock. The West Lockinge trainer blamed the terrain for her charge's defeat and it was legitimate reasoning. Best Mate is a dancer rather than a slogger, a horse which needs the savannah rather than the swamp.

Most of all, though, Knight seemed to blame the aura that has built up around her champion. She seemed to say that perhaps he was not that brilliant all along. "He may not be as good as everyone thinks he is," Knight said. "He's not probably a great horse because he can't go in all sorts of ground. On his day, with the right conditions, he's a very good horse."

Best Mate' connections are often criticised for not running him with greater frequency, yet his Blue Riband record shows the policy works.

A consequence of his rarity value is that a Best Mate date is the hottest ticket in town. A record crowd attended his seasonal return at Exeter, and last year's monster 19,000 audience here was again bettered.

The state of the ground, officially soft to heavy on the chase course, meant team Best Mate did not have to go foraging for excuses, especially as the horse had also cut his face on the ferry journey. Before yesterday, Beef Or Salmon had slipped through the ropes three times to face Best Mate and had been bloodied each time. It was the British-based horse that was carrying the ostensible sign of injury yesterday, though. He had the look of a cartoon-book gangster with a long gash under his left eye held together by six staples.

In a novice chase earlier in the day the three that managed to finish became virtually still forms on the run-in. Mindful of that vision, the jockeys in the Lexus set off at little more than an amble. Cloudy Bays led, from Pizarro and Rule Supreme. Best Mate was preserved in midfield, while Beef Or Salmon was sixth and last.

The even-money favourite, who had drifted from a morning 4-7, slipped on landing at the first, but thereafter vaulted with trademark nimbleness and accuracy. The last of the attributes to go will be his jumping. In between the obstacles, Best Mate's hooves looked permanently attached to the turf. It was not the action of a soft-ground horse.

Jim Culloty, his jockey, tried to find the better ground in the middle of the straight first time around, but it was a fruitless search. His partner did not look as though he was hating the surface but that was an illusion. "He tried his heart out," the jockey reported. "Throughout the whole of the race it [the ground] just sapped his energy."

Culloty was trying to save the battery, but could feel the horse draining beneath him. Three out, his partner went hollow. Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon came together. Battle was joined, but then, almost immediately, battle was over. We are not used to seeing Best Mate get left behind, and if Rule Supreme had not capsized at the last we might have witnessed a sight never before seen. However, the tall horse's record of not being out of the first two remains intact after his 21st outing.

At the line, with Best Mate seven lengths behind Beef Or Salmon, Paul Carberry on the winner recognised the moment by leaning back in the saddle and waving Best Mate on. It was perhaps not the most thoughtful of gestures, but it did encapsulate the jockey's elation here in panto season. Carberry had hacked down the beanstalk. He later apologised for movements "which could have been considered unsporting and unnecessary", and was cautioned by the stewards.

Michael Hourigan, Beef Or Salmon's trainer, said: "He's justified my belief in him. From seven down I knew he would win if he stood up. He's all the gears and so much class it's unbelievable. You'll see a different horse again at Cheltenham. If we get a clear run from here there's a deal of improvement."

In a difficult nine months, Best Mate has gone from Arkle's natural successor in the wake of his third Blue Riband to, on official figures, being the fifth best chaser in training. In less than three months' time will come definitive evidence if he can still cut it. That will have taken quite a bit out of him, but the horse is back with us in one piece," Knight said. "He deserves to fight again. Given the right ground, which they usually have at Cheltenham, he'll be a different horse.

"I've always thought Beef Or Salmon was a good horse and maybe everything was wrong with him last year. He'll be one to contend with in March, but I think we'd beat him again on good ground. If it is coming to an end, it was not a bad run, was it?"