Racing: Courageous, steadfast and noble: the horse that enchanted a nation

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The Independent Online

Nothing quite touches the soul of the nation like the glory - or the anguish - of a great horse and yesterday we were reminded of one reason why this is so.

Nothing quite touches the soul of the nation like the glory - or the anguish - of a great horse and yesterday we were reminded of one reason why this is so.

It came in the poignant details of what might prove to be the last competitive strides of Best Mate. They were made far from the roars of the vast crowd - which for three successive years had bounced against the hills - but again, and with devastating results, the horse's spirit had taken him to his brave limits.

When the three-times Cheltenham Gold Cup winner was pulled up on the gallops he had blood in his nostrils. Best Mate, whose absence from next week's great jump Festival leaves a cavernous hole, had broken a blood vessel.

With the bursting of that vessel the Irish-bred 10-year-old, the centrepiece of Cheltenham since 2002, thus made a reality of the phrase we routinely apply to supreme effort. If this does indeed prove to be the signature of a superb career its validity can be retraced easily enough.

We need only go back to last March when Best Mate completed his hat-trick of Gold Cups and drew level with the legendary Arkle. Best Mate beat the 33-1 shot Sir Rembrandt by half a length. He came up the rising ground as a slugger more than a star and though his jockey, Jim Culloty, complained that he had been boxed in, the reality was that this was a triumph of courage over sheer talent.

In one sense this week's breakdown might be seen as a kind of deliverance, heart-breaking in one way, but maybe a relief from the possibility of a crushing denouement for a horse which had, unwisely, been ranked with the wondrous Arkle not only in historical achievement but also in talent.

This, said the aficionados, was a fiction. Arkle, who won in 1964, '65 and '66, was less good-looking than his successor but, with his massive ears pricked, was a phenomenon that could never be forgotten - or surpassed. He ripped up the old handicapping system in the majesty of his stride.

However, this does nothing to lessen the shock of Best Mate's withdrawal from the challenge of a fourth Gold Cup victory, which would have been one more than Arkle and one less than Golden Miller, a giant of the Thirties, albeit in less competitive days.

Best Mate had, with his victories over Commanche Court, by a length and three-quarters, and Truckers Tavern, by 10 lengths, and with last year's visceral battle to the line, occupied much of the ground once claimed by such extroverts as the grey Desert Orchid and Red Rum, the indomitable spirit of the Grand National.

He was at the heart of an intensely human story, in which Henrietta Knight, the trainer, a former private girls' school teacher, and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, the wildest of champion jockeys, renounced alcohol and remade their lives against the dramatic backcloth of Best's Mate's achievements.

Knight, so nervous on Gold Cup day that she cannot bear to watch the race, said that this year she would need tranquillisers to deal with the tension. That prescription will now go unwritten, as will another extraordinary chapter in the life of a horse of astounding courage.

Can the story be resumed in 2006? One top racing man was sceptical: "Best Mate proved himself a fine steeplechaser, but there was no doubt he had been struggling this year and while Henrietta Knight has done a wonderful job it has also required her to be a bit of a mother hen. She has had to fuss over Best Mate in an extraordinary way as she wrapped him in cotton wool. Maybe they will now decide to quit while they can, although of course there would be nothing remarkable about a good 11-year-old winning the Gold Cup."

That, no doubt, will be a long and intriguing story within the world of racing.

For the nation there is simply the loss of an annual drama when a great horse carries so many hopes and so much emotion. There will be no reacquaintance with the foibles of Best Mate; no reminders of his addiction to Polo mints or his habit of nipping the backside of Biddlecombe. Missed most, though, will be the thrill of seeing a champion make his move over the last few fences and then come up the hill to reclaim his place at the heart of the nation.

Henrietta Knight did not conceal the extent of her devastation. She said that she was "sickened" as she came off the gallops. But then she was also defiant. "He will be back next season," she insisted.

Racing may be sceptical, but millions will clamour for the return. A horse like Best Mate, after all, takes on a mythic quality. We see more than one brave competitor. We see courage and steadfastness and a nobility of effort. It is immaterial that it happens to come on four legs.

MATE CHECK: ONE OF THE GREATS

Born
25 January, 1995.

Breeding
Sire - Un Desperado
Dam - Katday

Career record
14 wins from 21 starts.

Total prize-money won
£1m.

Owner
Jim Lewis.

Trainer
Henrietta Knight.

Jockey
Jim Culloty.

Career win highlights

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2002, 2003, 2004
Ericsson Chase 2003
King George VI Chase 2002
Peterborough Chase 2002
Scilly Isles Novice Chase 2001
Independent Novice Chase 2000
Martell Novice Hurdle 2000

Crowd pleaser
Last September over 6,000 people turned up to see Best Mate at an open day at Knight's Oxfordshire stables.

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