Racing: Best Mate's festive target still on hold

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The Independent Online

A wet Christmas is on Henrietta Knight's wish-list to Santa as d-day looms for Best Mate and his programme for the festive season. The dual Gold Cup winner's trainer and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, will walk the course at Kempton on Friday as they wrestle with the dilemma of which prize to target with Jim Lewis's star: the King George VI Chase at the Sunbury track or the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown two days later.

Knight is keenest to give the seven-year-old the opportunity of following up last year's success in the £160,000 Kempton contest but the playing surface will determine the route taken. "We would not want the word 'firm' to appear in the going report," she said. "Last year on fast ground he was quite stumped up and short in his action afterwards. I know people want to see him but we will be doing what is best for the horse."

The omens for Best Mate's British fans did not look promising yesterday as Best Mate and Edredon Bleu took light exercise in brilliant sunshine and a cold, drying wind at West Lockinge Farm. "The ground at Kempton is good at the moment," Biddlecombe said, "and it dries out quickly there on the gravel. And as Hen says, the horse comes first, then the public."

It is, however, an ill chill wind that blows nobody good. And should Best Mate defect from his King George defence, then Edredon Bleu could be his unlikely understudy. Despite plans to put the evergreen 11-year-old away until the spring after his defeat of Beef Or Salmon at Clonmel last month, he is still being kept on the boil with the No 12 shirt washed, ironed and ready.

"If the ground is too fast for Best Mate, it will suit Edredon Bleu," Knight said. "I know he appeared not to stay three miles when he ran in the race two years ago but that was on tacky ground. He was bang there on the turn into the straight and we still think he'll stay the trip."

The ferry to Ireland has already been booked, but the ticket is transferable. "We had to pre-book because it's a busy period," Knight said. "He will stay in both races; we can't control the weather so we've got to have the options. But depending on how things work out, Chives could run in the Ericsson."

Best Mate and Edredon Bleu looked in simply splendid fettle as they went through their paces yesterday, a preliminary canter followed by a longer, stronger one against the collar up one of West Lockinge's latest assets, a mile-long all-weather strip installed in September. Knight watched the proceedings from the top deck of a green-painted engineless double decker bus parked on the hillside opposite an iron age burial site. It was an elevated weatherproof vantage point that rather summed up the wackiness and eminent practicality that work in such harmony at the Oxfordshire establishment.

Underfoot conditions were a recurring theme during the morning. And if the worry about too-fast ground at Kempton seems to contradict the excuses about too-soft ground put forward after Best Mate's season debut defeat at Huntingdon by Jair du Cochet, who is set for the Boxing Day fray, Knight was at pains to explain the paradox. "It was not so much that it was soft ground," she said. "Soft is OK. But there was no bottom to it, and he was slipping and sliding and could get no purchase, and so could not jump with any fluency.

"He'd done most of his work up to then on the all-weather, he'd only had one little canter on grass. I thought we'd got him as fit as he could be, but perhaps he was not only a bit ring-rusty in his mind but also as far as galloping on grass was concerned."

After a day off in the paddock on Sunday and yesterday's limb-stretcher, Best Mate will go to Mick Channon's over the Ridgeway at West Ilsley this morning for a more serious piece of action on the green stuff. "He has never been so well," Knight said, "and we haven't had a single problem since Huntingdon." The usual security measures will commence on Friday as part of the build-up to the Kempton race, particularly appropriate in view of an incident at the yard last week. "We found a man asleep in one of the young horses' barns one morning, covered in shavings," she said. "He'd got lost on the Downs and crept in to take shelter from the rain. No harm was done and he apologised, but it makes you think."