Racing: Best Mate's late lunge rewards the faithful

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The Independent Online

Forget racing's politics, bickering, controversies and even punting. At a gorse-and-heathery country track on the sport's western outposts there was a reminder yesterday of what matters: the horse at the heart of it all. Best Mate, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, drew the faithful in their thousands to Exeter yesterday for his seasonal reappearance in the William Hill Chase and, gentleman that he is, did not disappoint them.

Forget racing's politics, bickering, controversies and even punting. At a gorse-and-heathery country track on the sport's western outposts there was a reminder yesterday of what matters: the horse at the heart of it all. Best Mate, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, drew the faithful in their thousands to Exeter yesterday for his seasonal reappearance in the William Hill Chase and, gentleman that he is, did not disappoint them.

It was a close-run thing, just the flare of an elegant black velvet nostril at the end of nearly three miles, but prevail the champ did. Best Mate, the 4-7 favourite, inched out 12-1 shot Seebald and the rapture of the crowd was plain to hear when the result of the photo was announced. The relief on the faces of the West Lockinge team - trainer Henrietta Knight, owner Jim Lewis, lass Jackie Jenner and jockey Timmy Murphy - was as obvious.

Make no mistake, this was a nailing good performance, despite the narrow margin of victory. Seebald is no mug, was receiving 4lb, had the four-runner race run to suit him and was match-fit. Best Mate had to make his own running for nearly a circuit and, professional though he is, must have been ring-rusty. But in the run for the line over the final four fences in the straight, as he and Seebald quickened away to leave Frenchman's Creek and Sir Rembrandt behind, his competitor's heart kicked in. He may have lost the lead for a flicker on the run-in, but he had it back where it mattered.

On a bright, cold afternoon, Best Mate had his travelling fans packed 20-deep round the parade ring. Trace-clipped as usual, the bay nine-year-old had to cede the best-turned-out award to Sir Rembrandt whose fully-shaven hide almost glittered in the low winter sunlight. But that was the last of the concessions; even during the preliminaries he towed Jenner round with such up-for-it exuberance that he was in danger of lapping the opposition.

Then over the 17 obstacles he handed out a jumping lesson, accurate and foot-perfect virtually every time and agile enough to tweak his hind legs off the birch on those rare occasions when he was an inch or so out. His leap at the 11th fence was particularly spectacular and Murphy, riding the gelding in public for the first time, was duly appreciative. "He is a quite beautiful jumper," he said. "It was that that won it for us, really. He was always taking me there, carrying me to every fence." Once settled to the final battle, Murphy was cool enough under fire to resist giving Best Mate any sort of a hard race. He administered just one smack once it was clear Seebald was not going to go away, but never drew his stick in the forehand position. And the velvet glove approach reaped the reward. "We didn't want him to do too much on his first run and it sounds like a typical, very good Timmy Murphy ride," said Knight who, as usual, did not tempt fate by watching the race face-on. "I was in some bushes; I saw their backsides going past and that was about it. It's a great relief to get this first one behind us and I'd give him eight-and-a-half out of 10; he didn't do much wrong." Best Mate's Christmastide countdown to a tilt at that fourth Gold Cup is likely to next take in the Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown that he won last year, rather than the King George VI Chase.

"I'm still not a fan of him at Kempton," said Knight. "Unless the ground comes up very testing in Ireland I would rather go there." Knight expects that Best Mate, who took his earnings past the £1m mark yesterday, will sharpen up considerably before then. "There always a lot of improvement from his first run," she said. "he is a horse that finds work so easy at home that no matter what you do it is only in a race that you begin to get to his reserves. He didn't take anything out of himself over his fences today, but he had to be a bit tough at the end." Frenchman's Creek, who put up a fine performance on his comeback from injury, came in 16 lengths third and may turn out again in the Hennessy Gold Cup today week. Sir Rembrandt, who had run Best Mate to half a length in the latest Gold Cup, proved all at sea on his first attempt right-handed and, after jumping clumsily and hanging left, was eased.

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