Racing: Best Mate in shape to hold challenge of Rembrandt

Today's The Day. Every blade of grass has been inspected and passed fit, every weather forecast scanned. Best Mate will, short of an overnight declaration of Armageddon, make his seasonal debut at Exeter this afternoon, his first race since becoming the first triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner since Arkle. It is the Oscar winner going back to the theatre where he first played rep; the nine-year-old made his chasing debut at the small country track on top of Haldon Hill and last appeared there three years ago.

Today's The Day. Every blade of grass has been inspected and passed fit, every weather forecast scanned. Best Mate will, short of an overnight declaration of Armageddon, make his seasonal debut at Exeter this afternoon, his first race since becoming the first triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner since Arkle. It is the Oscar winner going back to the theatre where he first played rep; the nine-year-old made his chasing debut at the small country track on top of Haldon Hill and last appeared there three years ago.

At the time, he was the subject of glowing advance notices and since then, of course, he has not only become a three-time Gold Cup champion and a charity fund-raiser through Mateyabilia, but also the horse who has come nearest to jumping the fence that divides his sport and wider public interest since Desert Orchid. Exeter is bracing itself for an invasion, with a crowd four times the norm for a damp Friday in November expected to truck along the A38, plus a media circus.

Yesterday Timmy Murphy, replacement for the injured Jim Culloty in the hallowed saddle, was playing the "just another day in the office" card ahead of his date on Mate with destiny. Today will be the first time the Irishman has ridden the superstar in public, though he did have a sit on him in private last weekend. "It is a great honour to ride such a talented chaser," he said. "And I know thousands will be at Exeter, but I'm not feeling any pressure. You can't let things like that affect you in big races. At the end of the day he is a racehorse, and I'm doing my job."

Murphy, 30, has taken advice from colleague Culloty. "I schooled the horse over a couple of fences on Saturday and he felt a million dollars," he said. "Obviously, I haven't partnered him in a race situation before, but I've ridden against him and I've sat down and had a good chat with Jim. I feel as if I know all I need to know."

Best Mate will face just three rivals in the William Hill Chase, a £65,000 two mile, seven furlong contest new to the programme book, and one formulated to attract the champ. Accidents apart, two of them, Seebald and Frenchman's Creek, though admirable performers in their own right, are surely playing for place money only.

However the third, Sir Rembrandt, is a worthy opponent, holding, as he does, the accolade of being the horse to have got closest to Best Mate in any of our hero's 13 wins. He was only half a length behind up the Cheltenham hill in March, at level weights, and receives 4lb today. On the book that should be enough to tip the balance and he has the advantage of a race under his girth this term.

"The race will not be a walk in the park," added Murphy, "and this is really just the start of his season. But he certainly isn't going there to get beaten. He is going there to do his best."

Best Mate has won first time out four seasons out of five, the exception being last year, when he was undone by a morass underfoot at Huntingdon and an uncharacteristic lack of match-fitness. Though her horses have not yet really started firing - four winners from 75 runners, and well-fancied Impek beaten at Clonmel yesterday - trainer Henrietta Knight is guardedly optimistic. "He's looking particularly well and going well," she said during the week. "We've been able to get more work into him on grass this autumn. Firm ground prevented us from doing so much last year and he was all at sea when he was beaten at Huntingdon. This time he'll not be so ring-rusty back on grass."

Neither is Knight concerned about the possibility of a tactical affair, for Jim Lewis's pride and joy has made his own running in the past, and won in a four-horse field on his last visit to this undulating track that suits an athlete of his balance so well. "A bigger field might be better," she said, "but it doesn't matter to him about the pace and he's an adaptable horse."

After the Cambridgeshire débâcle of 12 months ago, the Devon grass has been of particular interest to Knight this week and reports from Exeter yesterday indicate that its squishiness will be just right. The going is good, with some good to soft patches, and will remain so. "It has been spitting, but the rain gauge is still on zero," said a spokesperson.

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