Racing: Best Mate helps in voyage of discovery

The team behind the Gold Cup winner has survived a boisterous past of drinking deep from life's well
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The Independent Online

Terry Biddlecombe has a face which could double up as a relief map of Wessex. If Thomas Hardy had been a painter he would have covered a canvas with it. Yesterday it was irrigated by tears, for which the explanation had to be something wondrous.

Biddlecombe doesn't tend to tears. Nor does his wife, the trainer Henrietta Knight, but yesterday they had reason enough even by the rigorous standards of National Hunt racing. Best Mate, the seven-year-old snapped up by Biddlecombe at an Irish point-point and nurtured by Knight as a mother might a favourite child, did not merely win the Gold Cup at the same age as the precocious wonder horse Arkle. He won a great race, wore down two former champions and showed the perfect action of an authentic equine athlete.

The career prospects of Best Mate will, however, be exhaustively analysed for quite some time and the future may well be his. As Biddlecombe put it with typical boisterousness, it could be spectacular indeed for a performer whom he says has everything Linford Christie had apart from those appendages which are sacrificed in the making of a gelding. But, if Best Mate was the star, he was in an odd way only part of the story.

The finding of Best Mate was one thing. The rediscovery of Biddlecombe, the fresh purpose in a barnstorming life which came when he turned a new corner with his wife, who like him admitted to an alcohol problem, is quite another, and for those of the racing crowd who remembered the big, bold blonde jockey who charged every fence on and off the course, and who won the Gold Cup on Woodland Venture 35 years ago, that was a source of the sharpest pleasure yesterday.

Some old jockeys offered colourful snippets of the time when Biddlecombe, who scouts out the talent for Knight and draws up the race tactics, used to spend hours in a Turkish bath, dropping as much as 10lb, and then stop at a pub on the way to the course to revive himself with a combination of Babycham and brandy – Babycham for the fizz, brandy for the power.

There was also the time that the young lion had a romantic liaison in between riding winners at Ludlow. Recalled a fellow jockey, "The announcer said that Terry had landed a double. Those of us in the know knew it was really a treble."

Another contemporary said: "It's a wonderful story because Terry was maybe the greatest character the game has ever known, he lived right out on the edge and I suppose some of us who enjoyed those times felt a little guilty that we were part of something that, for him, threatened never to stop. But it's great to see him enjoying himself so much now, and enjoying such a success."

Yesterday, the man who once reported to the Aintree track dressed in an evening suit before riding a couple of winners, was all business. He said that if Best Mate, who is listed as 8-1 favourite for the next Gold Cup, wasn't Arkle, who knows, he might be the second Arkle. He was delighted with the performance of stable jockey Jim Culloty, who had plainly benefited from a "a couple of bollockings I've given him this week." Knight, who was claiming her fifth Festival win and is normally too nervous to watch the big races, was somewhat gentler in victory. She had had the nerve to watch every fence, and said that Culloty had ridden a perfect race on a perfect horse.

"We've loved this horse from the moment we first saw him," Knight said. It was the equivalent of the "Sicilian Thunderbolt" an instant passion which triumphed over unpromising circumstances. Best Mate was pulled up in a point-to-point, but Biddlecombe insisted that he should be bought. The owner said that he never sold a horse which hadn't won. The purchase came after the next point-to-point, when the future Gold Cup winner triumphed in a field of two. The other runner fell.

Biddlecombe had, however, seen enough. He had seen it all, the speed, the good action, the potential to come up the hill at Cheltenham and when it happened, when Commanche Court, a Triumph Hurdle winner, and the magnificently game 12-year-old former champion See More Business, were beaten to the line, Terry Biddlecombe could not check the roll of those tears. It was better than riding one home because a little more had gone into it. The remaking of his life, for example.