Racing: Best Mate reasserts supremacy with a stunning victory

It was as if the rattle at the points had never been. Best Mate put his quest for a third Gold Cup back on the smoothest of tracks at Leopardstown yesterday with a simply majestic annihilation of Ireland's cream in the Ericsson Chase.

It was as if the rattle at the points had never been. Best Mate put his quest for a third Gold Cup back on the smoothest of tracks at Leopardstown yesterday with a simply majestic annihilation of Ireland's cream in the Ericsson Chase.

On a cold, bright afternoon there was hint of storm neither in the air nor on the track for, despite the hopes of the massed faithful in the stands that the local boy Beef Or Salmon could provide an effective defence of the Grade 1 prize, no dour struggle, nor even a slight one, materialised. Best Mate glided, danced and flowed round the Co Dublin track and Jim Culloty needed only to disengage cruise control and give his partner's throttle a nudge for the eight-year-old to purr serenely clear and win by nine lengths, easing down.

He was a limo among bangers, except his rivals were hardly fit for the scrapheap. Runner-up Le Coudray, a former top-class staying hurdler, was a high-class novice chaser last term and Beef Or Salmon, four lengths third, won this three-mile contest 12 months previously and had been regarded as a serious contender for Best Mate's Cheltenham crown. The dual winner is now a best 5-4 with Ladbrokes, the only firm to offer better than evens, for his Festival hat-trick.

The most relieved person at Leopardstown was Best Mate's trainer Henrietta Knight, for even she had begun to succumb to nagging doubts about her charge's progress after his defeat in the slippery mud at Huntingdon five weeks ago. And his late switch from Friday's King George VI Chase (in which stablemate Edredon Bleu proved such an effective deputy) at Kempton to Ireland in search of optimum going ruffled a few feathers, both public and professional.

"The last month has been hell," she admitted. "I really wasn't entirely sure why he was beaten at Huntingdon. Was it the ground? Or was it because he was not as good as he was? It was a difficult decision to come here; I have never been so fearful coming to a race meeting and I just can't explain the pressure. But we stuck to our guns and got the result and I could not be happier. He was brilliant, or so I'm told."

As usual, Knight refused the extra stress of watching her darling perform, instead listening to the race commentary from the safety and isolation of the car park. "I'm told he jumped brilliantly," she added. "He's just a dream. I've never myself put him up with Arkle, but he's the best there is today. The best horse alive."

He certainly looked it yesterday. In the preliminaries his bay hide had an almost summer-like bloom, the steel-drum dapples on his powerful neck standing out thrillingly in the winter light. Going to post his action had a fluidity that spoke of approval of what he felt underfoot. "The one thing I was not worried about was the ground," said Knight. "I have had Franny Woods, the ex-jockey, walk the course for me every day for the past two weeks and he had been telling me it was fine. Even when it rained on Boxing Day I wasn't that concerned. When I walked the course myself this morning I couldn't have been more pleased. It was on the easy side of good, absolutely ideal for him."

Culloty shadowed the brisk pace set by Batman Senora and Colonel Braxton, with Timmy Murphy on Beef Or Salmon close enough if good enough, which he was not. The Irish pretender did not help his cause with an error four out but it made, in the end, no real difference to the result.

Culloty asked Best Mate, whose jumping had been faultless, to quicken past Colonel Braxton after the penultimate obstacle and, without apparent effort, he put daylight between himself and those toiling behind. A springheeled, showboating leap at the last prompted the huge cheer that even a partisan crowd will accord a true champion.

But then, Irish-bred Best Mate is almost one of their own anyway. "I am absolutely thrilled by the reception was given," said Knight, "To hear so many people cheering for him here has made me quite tearful."

The victory, after that of Edredon Bleu at Kempton, was absolute vindication of Knight's deployment of her troops and Best Mate will not be sent from barracks again until the Gold Cup itself. Light duties are the norm at West Lockinge and as Edredon Bleu did win a King George at the age of 11 perhaps the modus operandi should not be crabbed.

"I have had a lot of criticism for not running him enough," she added, "but I would love Matey to still be as good when he is rising 12. The way to do that is to protect them and the way to protect them is not to over-run them."

The focus at Leopardstown today is on Champion Hurdle favourite Rhinestone Cowboy, who takes on six high-class rivals in the December Festival Hurdle. In Britain, the Grade 1 feature is the Challow Hurdle at Newbury, for which Cornish Rebel, Best Mate's six-year-old brother, is strongly fancied. Perhaps the name of another young sibling, who won at Limerick yesterday, sums up the progress of the clan. Inexorable.

ERICSSON CHASE: 1. BEST MATE (J Culloty) 8-11 fav; 2. Le Coudray 14-1; 3. Beef Or Salmon 2-1. 8 ran. 9. (Miss H Knight). Tote: 1.90; 1.30, 1.70, 1.60. Exacta: 11.00. CSF: 13.21. NR: Harbour Pilot.

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