Racing: Best Mate is bridesmaid for a day

Jair du Cochet the raining champion but Knight's pride and joy has grounds for excuse
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The Independent Online

On a foul day, the dull, cold, sodden sort often mystifyingly referred to by winter-game die-hards as "good jumping weather", the icon of those lovers of neck-seeping precipitation met his Waterloo. And it was the prevailing climate here - it had been raining stair rods in East Anglia for 24 hours - that was blamed for Best Mate's comprehensive eight-length defeat by rising French star Jair du Cochet. "When the ground is wet and sloppy like this," said rider Jim Culloty, "he can't even gallop on it, let alone jump."

Not as many of the faithful turned up yesterday - the crowd figure was estimated at some 4,000 hardy souls - to see the dual Gold Cup hero make his seasonal debut as had at trainer Henrietta Knight's open day nine weeks ago, but then that event was not competing with a certain rugby match. And a second Peterborough Chase was, really, regarded as almost a formality on the regal progress to a second King George VI Chase for Jim Lewis's eight-year-old, despite the presence of Jair du Cochet, Valley Henry and La Landiere.

The first seeds of doubt were sown even before the start. As the horses cantered to post, Jair du Cochet, last year's leading staying novice, was simply imperious. A big, impressive near-black six-year-old, he may have to bow to Best Mate in terms of quality of looks but not at all as far as power and athleticism are concerned. His mighty stride grabbed and devoured the the soaking ground.

A slow early pace would not have helped Best Mate, and as the field set out on the final circuit Jim Culloty had let him run into the lead. But the 8-13 favourite was not fencing with the cat-like flair that is his strong suit, nor travelling with his usual aplomb, and after a sticky jump and a slip at the final ditch four out, he started to come off the bridle.

By contrast, Jair du Cochet was virtually running away with Jacques Ricou. The Frenchman is not everyone's verre du vin as a stylist or tactician but this horse is, by all accounts, a difficult enough ride, physically and mentally strong in the head, and Ricou knows him better than any.

As Jair du Cochet came to the last on his own, followed by Best Mate and a labouring Valley Henry (the three big boys had dropped La Landiere, the best mare in training, before the turn in), Ricou, with his hands almost over-full, let him run left as he measured the fence, and though the birch flew as he clipped through the top, the pair's equilibrium was barely threatened.

"With no other horses near him, he was not fully concentrating," said Ricou. "But I knew I would win before we came into the straight. I could see the other jockeys pushing and I knew I was not." The rematch is scheduled for Kempton on Boxing Day, an encounter for which the reigning title-holder remains the favourite.

Jair du Cochet had come to yesterday's fray with two runs under his ample girth and had the fitness edge, but trainer Guillaume Macaire, whose Douze Douze was second in the race last year, was prepared for defeat again.

"I have a huge reverence for Best Mate," he said. "When I saw him walking round the parade ring his power was such that his groom was having to run to keep up with him. I nicknamed him The Lion in my mind. But having said that, Jair du Cochet has grown up massively since last season, so much bigger and stronger."

Jair du Cochet is only the third horse to have defeated Best Mate over fences, after Wahiba Sands and Florida Pearl. Knight was philosophical. "You can't be in this game if you don't expect reversals," she said. "It's what sport is about. But it was horrible out there, bottomless and slippy. Just like it was when Barton beat him at Aintree," she added, referring to Best Mate's last run over hurdles, two-and-a-half years ago.

Knight had the slight consolation of a £70 bet on the winner, a 100-30 shot. "He is a very good horse," she said, "and he's in all my ten-to-follow lists as well."

At Ascot, the champion hunter-chaser Kingscliff put down his own marker for the Gold Cup with a dramatic success on his first run in professional company. After the third fence of the three-mile handicap his reins broke, leaving Andy Thornton with little steering and no brakes. But the pair completed the course untroubled, coming in 17 lengths clear of Horus.

"It probably helped him to have no interference from me," said a modest Thornton. "He was happy as Larry just doing his own thing."

The six-year-old Kingscliff is trained by Robert Alner, who already has one Gold Cup with a former hunter, Cool Dawn, on his CV.

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