Racing: How's your Best Mate? Well, he's back on track but needs run to rekindle golden past

A nation's favourite races today for first time in over 10 months but is he as good as ever? Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online

The time has come for Best Mate, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, to return to the racetrack.

After defeat and injury, primarily the bursting of blood vessels, the great horse goes west to Exeter for his first race in over 10 months. This afternoon, at 2.40pm, we find out if his career is heading in the same direction.

Horses, and in particular jumping horses, do not tend to reach previous peaks again after a serious setback. That is probably no worthy thought as the most notable jumping animal of the young millennium tries to prove he still has it in the Haldon Gold Cup today. He tries to prove there is some competitive life left.

Best Mate is now 10, which may not be retirement age in a National Hunt beast's existence but it is the time when his hair could be thinning and he forgets why he went into a room. It may seem odd for a champion of three Blue Ribands, but Best Mate is starting all over again in Devon.

At a recent open day at Henrietta Knight's West Lockinge Stables, Best Mate looked as if he had stepped down from within a picture frame. His skin was clear and radiant, he looked dark and substantial, but then so does a marshmallow. He can still do it for the eye. Now we find out if he can still do it for the heart.

"We're not necessarily expecting him to win, but it should be a nice outing for him," Knight said yesterday. "He's ready for a race. We're not expecting wonders from him, but we hope he will run a good race.

"He would prefer quicker ground, but I don't think it's going to rain again before the race. The distance is on the short side and there are good, quicker horses in there. It's a prep race to get him primed for the rest of the season.''

This afternoon, Best Mate will be as vulnerable as the very first time he was spotted, a small black blob lying on a thin sheet of wet snow in a field at Trim, Co Meath.

Today's journey at Exeter will be too short, the ground too soft, and it has yet to be confirmed that the old horse's chassis can stand up to the whirrings of the engine within.

The going is reckoned to be good to soft, and soft in places. A millimetre of rain fell on Sunday night and around three millimetres were anticipated yesterday afternoon. It was then supposed to be dry, but the terrain will be no aid to Best Mate's floating stride.

The tall horse used to frighten the others into retreat in the jungle, but it seems flies have been spotted around the old king's head. Five is usually a substantial field for the Haldon Gold Cup, but double that number will now come out of the long grass to nip at Best Mate.

Contraband and Ashley Brook, who were first and second in the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, are in the mix, also the Paul Nicholls-trained pair of Kauto Star and Kadarann, Sue Smith's Castleford Chase victor Mister McGoldrick and Monkerhostin from Philip Hobbs' stable. They can smell weakness.

Best Mate is the forecast fourth favourite today and this will be the first time he has not been a market leader since he won the first of his Gold Cups in 2002. In eight starts since, he has not gone off at odds bigger than 13-8. But it all went wrong for Best Mate on 10 March this year, eight days before his fourth assault on the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Horses routinely break blood vessels, but they usually do not have blood seeping from their noses in their last piece of serious work before jump racing's championship.

Best Mate "burst" on Mick Channon's borrowed gallops that day, he also burst a dream. "It was a terrible shock because it came at a time when the pressure had been really building," Knight said. "We were so close to the Gold Cup itself.

"I won't take him to the place where he bled before. I don't want him to be concerned again by an uncomfortable experience. That would be foolish. Horses are like elephants. They have a tremendous memory. They are clever animals in that way.

"Providing we do not have a recurrence of what happened on the gallops, I can't see why he can't be as good as ever. He's still a very good horse."

Best Mate is a bay, neither grey nor red, neither Desert Orchid nor Red Rum, both of whom may have been inferior but both of whom possessed more charisma.

Best Mate, like Red Rum, is taken charge of by rather peculiar connections, in his case an ex-schoolteacher of biology and an ex-champion jockey ex-alcoholic, Knight and her husband, Terry Biddlecombe. Unlike Rummy though, he will never be tried over the equine obstacle course the British public know best, the Grand National.

More plainly, he does not own the striking hue of Desert Orchid, and we all learn at an early age from the fairy storybook that the really special horses are grey.

Best Mate also compares badly with these predecessors in other categories, as he had been campaigned neither frequently nor with great derring-do. When fit, he competes three times a season, a figure which compares rather radically with Red Rum, a combatant in over 100 races. In addition, Best Mate, unlike Desert Orchid, rarely runs in handicaps, racing's form of communism which tries to bring the very best horses into line with the very ordinary by allotting them larger weight penalties.

There is a certain magic about the good athletes triumphing with one hoof effectively tied up, but it is not a rabbit that Knight likes pulling out of her hat.

Best Mate is no flamboyant horse. He is a National Hunt animal who achieves the mechanics of his sport most cleanly. He gallops, almost imperceptibly, at high speed and wastes barely a calorie with his quick and accurate jumping. He might not be Desert Orchid or Red Rum, but he is the horse of his age and we cannot afford to be too careless with our equine heroes.

"This is not a robust horse we are talking about and, if you ran him too often, you could ruin him,'' Knight said. "Our only job is to get him back to Cheltenham with the best possible chance of winning another Gold Cup. We are not interested in running him in handicaps with top weight.

"We're not trying to prove he's like Arkle. We're just trying to enjoy the horse we've got. If some people don't like it then I'm afraid it's just bad luck on them. They don't own the horse.

"The people he can't satisfy are those who are always trying to compare him with past generations, Arkle in particular. Arkle had only about five opponents in each Gold Cup he ran in, but comparisons are pointless anyway. Let's enjoy what we've got and try to get the best out of him we can.''

It is somewhat incongruous then that the story continues today in a handicap, with Best Mate giving away weight all round. There are new faces among the enemies, indeed a new face among the friends.

In one sense, part of the Best Mate story is already dead. Jim Culloty, the Irish jockey who was advanced from mediocrity to legend by the partnership, has retired. Culloty candidly revealed, earlier this season, that his nerve had gone.

The replacement, for this afternoon at least, appears a shrewd appointment. Best Mate is not a horse which requires interference or a game of master and slave with the man on his back. It is for this reason that connections believe he has not got on particularly well with the strong man of the weighing room, Tony McCoy.

The jockey at the controls today is Paul Carberry, the wayward Irish talent whose prominent skills are judgement of pace and presentation of a horse at the obstacles.

It may be that Carberry now keeps the ride to the end of Best Mate's career. It may be that eventuality coincides with dusk falling at Exeter this afternoon.

The Best of days... the worst of days

* November 1999: Best Mate sees a track for first time and confirms expectations with Cheltenham victory at 10-1.

* January 2000: Third race and first defeat, in a hurdle at Sandown by Monsignor, one of only seven horses to have beaten Best Mate. He has never finished worse than second in a 21-race career.

* November 2000: Wins his first race over fences. Comparisons with Arkle begin.

* March 2002: First of three Gold Cups, just holding Commanche Court.

* March 2003: Becomes first horse in 30 years to win back-to back Gold Cups in a scintillating 10-length romp.

* March 2004: Joins Arkle and Cottage Rake as post-war triple Gold Cup winners.

* March 2005: Breaks a blood vessel on the gallops in final Cheltenham prep.