Racing: Best Mate's giant leap from shadow cast by Arkle

Cheltenham Festival: Knight and Lewis strike gold for second year running as peerless eight-year-old earns place in the record books
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THE STORY of Best Mate, already stunning, already a diamond shining in the jaded storehouse of modern, big-money sport, took on still another dimension here yesterday when the eight-year-old delivered a gold-edged calling card to the executors of the estate of the wonder horse Arkle.

The story of Best Mate, already stunning, already a diamond shining in the jaded storehouse of modern, big-money sport, took on still another dimension here yesterday when the eight-year-old delivered a gold-edged calling card to the executors of the estate of the wonder horse Arkle.

Some may still be inclined to toss it aside, say it represents a claim that remains impertinent even after the extraordinary nature of Best Mate's second successive Gold Cup triumph – the first time the greatest prize of jump racing has been successfully defended since L'Escargot did it 32 years ago.

They may say that Arkle will always be unique, a talent that came like a meteor with three Gold Cups before rheumatism in his pedal bone brought early retirement – and death. But if Arkle's memory is secure in the mists of time, and commemorated in bronze here at the scene of his greatest triumph, it cannot any longer be said to be without challenge.

Give unto Arkle what was his, certainly, but do not short-change Best Mate. That was the thunderous consensus as hats flew in the air and cheers rolled across the valley as Best Mate came in 10 lengths ahead of the 33-1 outsider Truckers Tavern.

It was as much a triumph for the people as when favourites Arkle and Desert Orchid – the only other horses to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and the King George at Kempton in the same season – provoked similar ecstasy.

Best Mate, apart from anything else, was the final hammer of the bookies. Before he went out to resist the mythic challenge of Ireland's young pretender Beef Or Salmon – an early faller – Freddie Williams, one of the few independent bookmakers willing to slug it out with the master bettor JP McManus, said: "I'm not too far behind despite so many favourites coming in, but there will be plenty of blood if Best Mate comes in. In fact, if that happens they will probably have to carry me out feet first."

Williams was still on his feet at the end of another gruesome day, but along bookmakers' row the build-up of tension was so great no one was inclined to carelessly throw down a match. What happened yesterday, though, was something that stretched far beyond the jousting on the rails.

Best Mate's connections continued to inhabit a wondrous land where the possibilities of the future were as dazzling as the glory of the moment. The trainer, Henrietta Knight, and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, the former girls' school teacher and the old barnstorming jockey, were again provided with the kind of intoxication which neither of them quite knew in their now abandoned drinking days.

Knight revisited many of her superstitions but Biddlecombe said that he had been basically unconcerned. "I knew how much the horse had improved these last 12 months, I wasn't worried that the King George had taken too much out of him. You saw him flying around there," he said.

The 69-year-old owner, Jim Lewis, thought he was watching Pegasus. "It was just beautiful – a beautiful day, and a beautiful performance," he said. After singing Amazing Grace with his family and friends, and bowing deeply to the Queen, who was breaking a near 50-year absence from the Festival, he said: "My heart was beating so fast I could have beaten eggs with it ... it is such an emotional day. When Matt Archer and Jean Broadhurst [the owners of Old California, one of three equine fatalities yesterday] spoke to me before the race I couldn't hold back my tears. I've been crying on and off ever since."

Everyone's heart leaped when Best Mate flew over the third last and swept around the bend and up the hill. It was a move of absolute authority and the rate at which the horse consumed the rising ground persuaded his jockey, Jim Culloty, that, apart from the disembowelling of the field, a record had been shattered. As it happened, the 2000 running of Looks Like Trouble, on much faster going, retained the record, but Best Mate had knocked 11 seconds off last year's time.

In theory, Best Mate has enough age on his side to reach Golden Miller's record of five wins – but the fields and the pressure are so much greater now, and it could be that the matching of Arkle's hat-trick would be accepted, in modern conditions, as some ultimate achievement.

It might not strip away the sentiment that will always surround the memory of Arkle ransacking handicaps, ruining fields and gliding to the finish, but it would be more than a mere statistical mark in equine history. Arkle was, and will always be, a dream. Best Mate, for the moment, is glorious flesh and blood. Yesterday, that was quite enough to reinvigorate the soul.

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