Racing: Best Mate revels in company of friends
Henrietta Knight is giving her Gold Cup winner the rest of the season off
Saturday 16 March 2002
Notwithstanding his class and ability as an athlete, Best Mate, the new star of steeplechasing, is a truly remarkable horse. The Gold Cup winner stood in his box yesterday morning, awaiting the attentions of his public, and there was no trace either in his demeanour or on his seal-dark coat of the gruelling three-and-a-quarter miles he had run less than 24 hours before.
"He is extraordinary, isn't he," said lass Jackie Jenner as she gazed at the love of her life. "It was just so easy for him. He had stopped blowing by the time he got back to the winner's enclosure. The vets at the course who did the routine tests afterwards could not believe he'd just won the Gold Cup."
Wearing his victor's blanket, Best Mate paraded and posed for the cameras, conducted an interview with a local television reporter, obligingly nuzzled up to some darling baby ducklings hatched a few hours before his triumph, did several takes of a stroll through the daffodils and ended up on the lawns of the garden at West Lockinge Farm for a family snapshot with his nearest and dearest, and Elsa the golden retriever.
He conducted himself with good-natured composure throughout, as befits the gentleman he is and the company he keeps.
No one has yet worked out a way of repaying horses for the range of emotions they produce. Yesterday morning the overwhelming one at West Lockinge Farm was happy serenity as the day began to unfold. There were routine tasks to complete, horses to exercise, but still time to enjoy the moment and the memory.
"I feel absolutely content," said Terry Biddlecombe, trainer Henrietta Knight's other half. "I know I got a bit emotional yesterday, but I did too when I won the Gold Cup when I rode. But it takes a man to cry, doesn't it.
"The joy of this business is working with such a good horse, and having your belief justified. It means so much to everyone on this place, all the staff, the brilliant owner, everyone. We all did it, thanks to that star of a horse."
Best Mate will not run again until the autumn. The seven-year-old's next public appearance pencilled in is the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November, over a mile shorter than Thursday's victory.
"We wouldn't dream of asking such a young horse to run again this season," said Knight, still floating about the stable yard on cloud nine. "He is sure to improve and strengthen up so there is no point in rushing him. The horse's future is all there in front of him for the taking."
Fans of this game should be lucky that Best Mate is a racehorse, for this handsome, noble individual could have excelled at any discipline. And indeed, he has regular sessions of flatwork in the indoor school, like a dressage horse. The effect such suppling exercise has on his balance was evident to all at Cheltenham.
"He is a horse without flaws," said Knight, "He could win at Badminton, over solid fences, or in the show ring, or in the dressage arena."
The gang was all there yesterday. Assistant Bridget Nicholls, Alexia Lovett, who does the dressage schooling, Andy Fox the head lad, Bob Bullock, who sat up all night guarding the horses the week before the Festival, vet Roger Bettridge, Jim Culloty with his mum and dad Donal and Maureen over from Co Kerry, secretary Chris Douglas-Home, all of them bursting with pride in their boy – could ever a horse be better-named – and a job well done.
Lord Vestey, chairman of Cheltenham and Knight's brother-in-law, dropped in and the champagne came out in the farmouse kitchen, with a picture of Biddlecombe on his Gold Cup winner Woodland Venture looking down from the wall at the happy gathering 35 years on. "I used to be good at this," said Knight, as she spilled the fizz on the old oak table.
There is a certain ritual that has to be properly addressed when visiting West Lockinge Farm. If you give Best Mate the half-packet of Polo mints you promised him if he won the Gold Cup, you have to share them with Edredon Bleu, in the next box along, otherwise his feelings get hurt.
Little house it ain't (the Knight family estate is an early Georgian mansion, farmhouse and cottages) and for prairie you have to read Oxfordshire downland.
But the comfortable feeling is there. And hey, it means nothing to them, but why not kiss a pair of handsome horses on their black-velvet noses. Goodnight Blue, see you in April. Goodnight Matey, see you next season.
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