Racing: Best Mate ready to join history's famous five
Sunday 09 March 2003
History is not on the side of the two best-fancied horses in the Gold Cup. Best Mate, the favourite, will be trying to break a 32-year hoodoo and become the first since L'Escargot to defend his crown successfully. The last novice, as is the second favourite Beef Or Salmon, to win was Captain Christy in 1974.
There are other statistics to make Best Mate's task seem formidable. Since L'Escargot, only five winners – The Dikler, Forgive'N'Forget, Charter Party, Desert Orchid and Jodami – have managed even a place the following year. And in the 74 Gold Cups since Red Splash started it all in 1924 only five horses have won two or more. Before L'Escargot there was Easter Hero (1929-30), the best chaser of the interwar period; five-time hero Golden Miller (1932-36); the top-class speedster Cottage Rake (1949-50); and the best there has ever been, Arkle (1964-66).
Given that Best Mate was rated a relatively ordinary 173 in Gold Cup terms (the range has been from Master Smudge's 150 to Arkle's 212) by Timeform last year, there is no guaranteed reason why he should succeed again where better animals (Desert Orchid, the best chaser since Arkle, was on 187) failed.
But just by turning up on Thursday in good form, the pride of Henrietta Knight's West Lockinge stables will have achieved more than most defending champions, and with the King George VI Chase under his handsome girth he has most certainly not deteriorated. He knows nothing of what we make of him, though, and in the end statistics do not beat horses, other horses do. When Jodami finished second in 1994, he exhibited the same level of ability that had secured him victory the previous year. And although Best Mate is a more complete athlete than a year ago, if this year's rivals are a better vintage than in 2002, it may not be enough.
Beef Or Salmon is the flagbearer for the newest generation. Before brilliant Captain Christy, the only first-season chasers to take the senior title were Red Splash, Golden Miller (1932) and Mont Tremblant (1952). Since Captain Christy, 17 have essayed but only one has reached the placings, and that was Beef Or Salmon's Michael Hourigan-trained stablemate Dorans Pride six years ago.
The second-season brigade is headed by Hussard Collonges, winner of last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase with a powerful display of jumping and galloping but given little credit at the time.
The pride of the veterans is See More Business, the 1999 winner. No horse has ever regained his crown, but the evergreen 13-year-old's third place last year has been bettered only by Linwell, runner-up two years after his 1957 victory.
Best Mate, with his high cruising speed, superb jumping technique and ability to quicken, can overturn the pages of history as well as his rivals in the 75th renewal of the blue riband. Hussard Collonges is taken to follow him home, with Cyfor Malta the best of the outsiders.
In contrast with the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle seems easier to win again, with five triple and seven double champions. It is also a happier hunting ground for novices, with nine successes, three in the past 10 years.
Hors La Loi has not yet shown himself good enough to follow up last year's sadly gifted victory, but Rhinestone Cowboy, the brilliant youngster, is favourite to follow on Tuesday in the hoofprints of Royal Gait, Alderbrook and Make A Stand. It will be the first serious venture against his seniors for Jonjo O'Neill's charge and, like Beef Or Salmon, he may find the crucible too hot.
Provided ease remains in the ground, the answer lies with a bearer of the colours of another of Ireland's major players, J P McManus. Like-A-Butterfly, winner of the Supreme Novices' 12 months ago and doughty conqueror of Limestone Lad this term, can become only the fourth mare to win, after African Sister (1939), Dawn Run (1984) and Flakey Dove (1994).
Wednesday's highlight, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, should provide an epic spectacle, spiced by the presence of Florida Pearl. The past two winners, Flagship Uberalles and Edredon Bleu, are scheduled to take part, but the baton looks set to be passed to Moscow Flyer, last season's two-mile novice champion.
The Jessica Harrington-trained nine-year-old is unbeaten in his nine completed chases, and although he suffered an upset when unseating through no fault of his own in the Tingle Creek Chase, he has had two victories since then. Tiutchev can mount the sternest home defence.
The fourth of the senior championships, the Stayers' Hurdle on Thursday, can at last bring the Cheltenham fairytale for Ireland's folk hero Limestone Lad.
Sue Montgomery's Selections
2.0 Back In Front
2.35 Farmer Jack
4.0 Ad Hoc
5.20 Iris's Gift
2.35 It Takes Time
3.15 Moscow Flyer
5.10 Go Roger Go
5.45 Royal Alphabet
2.0 Well Chief
2.35 Limestone Lad
3.15 Best Mate
4.00 Dorans Pride
4.35 Got One Too
5.10 La Landiere
Sue Montgomery tipped the first five winners at Fontwell last Sunday for a 286-1 accumlator.
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