Racing: Best Mate: the anatomy of a wonder horse

The eye-catching pride of Cheltenham has that elusive quality presence. Sue Montgomery gives an insight into what makes a champion
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The Independent Online

As Best Mate walked round the parade ring before the Gold Cup the contrast between him and Sir Rembrandt, a few paces behind him, was marked. Both thoroughbreds, but so different as individuals. In another era Sir Rembrandt, a huge, powerfully built type with sturdy limbs and more than a trace of hair at each heel, would have been one of a team pulling an aristocrat's carriage. Best Mate, smaller and lighter against him but all quality, would have been fleetly following hounds across shires grassland with the family's dashing eldest son. All right, at the end of the race the elegant hunter was only half a length in front of the coach horse, but the impression was that without the loss of momentum and rhythm when he was boxed in before the penultimate obstacle, the distance would have been daylight.

Best Mate is more of a Golden Miller than an Arkle in his dominance of his rivals. The former did not have the latter's overweening superiority, but given that he did win five Gold Cups, the present champion's connections will probably settle for the comparison. And it is the quest to breed, to identify, to own such paragons that keeps the bloodstock and racing industries going.

The latest triple Gold Cup winner is almost perfection in looks, an upstanding, handsome horse who catches the eye not only with his magnificent symmetry and athleticism but with that elusive quality that horsemen call presence. It involves confidence, charm, self-awareness and intelligence, a swaggering pride without arrogance or boorishness. Best Mate had it from the first time his trainer, Henrietta Knight, saw him, as a four-year-old at a Co Waterford point-to-point, and still had it as he hosted his now-annual party at Knight's West Lockinge Farm on the morning after his latest, and greatest, Cheltenham triumph.

He stood in a paddock in a wet gale, the wind flapping at his logo-ed winner's rug, completely unfazed by either the weather or his hard race the day before - his coat was seal-soft and sleek, with no mark of battle on it - and quite happily accepting pats and plaudits. The only time he showed any disinclination to co-operate was late on, when he finally became reluctant to poke his head out over his box door for just one more snap. "That's him," said his lass, Jackie Jenner. "He's not stupid. He likes joining in, he's generous with his co-operation, but it's him that decides when he's had enough."

There is another invisible ingredient in the formula that produces the beau ideal of a racehorse. Jim Culloty, Best Mate's jockey, calls it heart. "Yes, he is a fine big, balanced horse, who rides beautifully and is a proper athlete," he said. "But there are others like that who are not racehorses and there are some who look nothing and feel nothing, and yet they've got heart. You don't know about that until it goes to the test. Best Mate has got it all."

Best Mate had to dig into those reserves last Thursday. But there was an indication in his early life that he had courage. He was his dam Katday's first foal and he arrived, prematurely and unexpectedly, out of doors in a snow-covered paddock. His mum's milk dried up, and by the age of five weeks Best Mate weighed only 60lb and had lost all his hair in the cold and wet. But the little naked, black-skinned foal was a tough, clever cookie, who quickly learned to take milk from a bucket and started to thrive.

What makes a horse, or any being for that matter, what he or she is comes down to genetics before environment. Best Mate's sire, Un Desperado, was a high, but not top, class runner in France, with a decent turn of foot and, apparently, some of the personality of his celebrated son, notably his knowing, steady gaze. Katday is small but deep-girthed, with a beautiful head. Best Mate was the first, lucky shake of their genetic cocktail; later ones did not produce exactly the same desirable result. His full brother Inca Trail, for example, is a shade darker and several strides slower.

For Best Mate, comparisons with Arkle are inevitable and, in physiological terms, rather interesting. At 16.3 hands, Best Mate is the taller of the pair - Arkle was just over 16.2 hands - but his model shape and easy movement disguise his size until you stand next to him. His girth and Arkle's, round the middle of the body where heart and lungs are contained, are identical at a deep, massive 79in. They also measure the same impressive 41in from the point of the hip to the hock, the line that contains the leverage of the leg bones. Best Mate has the better shoulder, a beautifully angled 30in, compared with 27in for Arkle; the power behind the saddle and the reach in front combine to produce that mighty stride. He also has a sturdier foreleg, with a 9in circumference below the knee to Arkle's 8in, although density, rather than dimension, is probably more important in this respect.

The pair both own the grace and balance of a ballet dancer, the thrust and determination of a rugby threequarter, the eye and wings of an eagle. And there is something else. Arkle was not as a young horse as handsome as Best Mate, but he became a good-looking horse, seeming to grow into his status. It may be anthropomorphic, but in their heads, alert ears pricked above bold, gentle eyes, you'd swear there was, and is, wisdom.