Racing: Best Mate joins the gallery of Cheltenham's greatest heroes

Best Mate pushed himself over two finishing lines yesterday, over the one at Prestbury Park to secure yet another Cheltenham Gold Cup and the other to join racing's exalted as a three-time winner of the great Blue Riband.

The big horse by size and achievement now accompanies Golden Miller, Cottage Rake and, most evocatively of all, Arkle in the small yard reserved for the very great. He is the best by both name and performance.

The freshly drenched Cotswolds turf meant that Best Mate could not deploy the searing speed which had characterised his previous two Cheltenham victories. As he scrambled up the final hill, he proved that pluck as much as flamboyance is part of his wide-ranging armoury.

"We knew he had the class and all the ability," Jim Culloty, the winning jockey, said. "Now we know he's got the bottle as well."

The nine-year-old also possesses perfect timing. With racing in a mire of supposed crookedness, he burst forth yesterday with the rescuing rope. Under the rabbit grey skies of Gloucestershire, he filled Cheltenham and refilled its occupants ­ a record 57,643 paying customers ­ with the thought that his sport can be an uplifting pursuit.

They were getting short of shields here yesterday when Best Mate stepped out into the wind and chill before the choked steps of the parade ring. He was the only one of the big four still standing, the other returning champions ­ Rooster Booster, Moscow Flyer and Baracouda ­ having all been carried out.

The 8-11 shot appeared to nod in acknowledgement as he circled, his ears rampant. Culloty was levered into his seat after an encouraging pat on the bottom from Terry Biddlecombe, husband and assistant to the horse's trainer, Henrietta Knight. It was clearly an effective gesture as Culloty and his partner were soon relaxed in the race itself as the French horse, First Gold, hammered away in the lead.

A morning reconnaissance had told the team that the best ground was right down the inner, which was where Best Mate remained locked, as if belted to the rail. The favourite maintained a pleasing rhythm, vaulting with precision and economy until the last ditch.

That was where the conspiracy started. Best Mate was first tightened up by Andrew Thornton on Sir Rembrandt and then hit broadsides by the partnership of Paul Carberry and Harbour Pilot. They were out to get him. "I saw him coming and he was trying to push me off," Carberry reported. "This is a Gold Cup, not a maiden hurdle and you don't give much leeway in a race like that."

Culloty had to resist the urge to overreact. "Mine was the horse to beat and they were boxing me in," the jockey said. "I would have done exactly the same in their position because you would not get many rides in this game if you were a perfect gentleman ­ after you, sir.

"But it wasn't panic stations. I knew there was still plenty of time left and I managed to finally pull out going to the second last. That was the crucial fence as he winged it and that sealed it. I decided to pop the last because it was better than asking for a big one, maybe turning him over. But we were a little slow there which did not help."

It meant that Culloty could afford his old ally no kindness up the hill. The fluency had disappeared from Best Mate, his stride became choppy. Now all he could rely on was fighting instinct. There was just enough of it to hold off Sir Rembrandt by a diminishing half length.

Knight rushed out from the press tent adjacent to the weighing room for the traditional bear hug with her husband. She had been able to watch the race from only halfway up the straight.

"It is just an immense relief to see him win because everybody in the country wanted him to do it today and I couldn't dare let them down," she said. "The first time he won was wonderful because it was unexpected, the second was a relief and this one was something else. I think I'll need to be on tranquillisers from now until next year."

Punchestown was mentioned as a further port of call, but that will almost certainly be it now. Team Best Mate can resist the suggestion that their horse is an absentee champion who runs only around three times a year.

Theirs is a winning formula and one which may help their horse to yet another glorious landmark in the future.

There is no rush either to measure the modern hero against the one that came before. "It is a privilege to be associated with such a good horse, but it's a hell of a responsibility to have him in our yard," Knight said. "Arkle was a great horse, but I refuse to compare different generations. There is no doubt that Best Mate is the best around now."

Indeed, Arkle has become almost as brisk a part of equine myth as Pegasus, and those at West Lockinge stables have learned that it is hard to compete with the fabulous. Best Mate has, at least, dealt with all his earthly matters.

For the ageing romanticists there will never be a way Best Mate can beat Arkle on grass. On paper, though, in 12 months' time, it may be a different matter.

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