Racing: Knight comforted by Mate's injury

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The Independent Online

There are many crucial days on the thorny path to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but today is the most significant: owners and trainers have to remember to actually have their beast in the race at the cut-off point.

There are many crucial days on the thorny path to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but today is the most significant: owners and trainers have to remember to actually have their beast in the race at the cut-off point.

The moment will not pass Henrietta Knight. After all she is used to it. Less familiar to the West Lockinge trainer is the current aura of fallibility which surrounds her triple Blue Riband winner, Best Mate.

It seemed as though Knight was almost thrilled when she discovered the nine-year-old had a slight cough on his return from defeat in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Illness, coupled with heavy going, seemed proof positive that Best Mate was running with a leg strapped up behind Beef Or Salmon.

It emerged yesterday that the bus-line of explanations had not finished. Best Mate returned from Ireland, injured as well as diseased. "He pulled muscles in his shoulders when he did the splits at the first," Knight reported. "He's out in the field and having physio.

"I don't think you can totally disregard Leopardstown. But what with the ground and everything I wish we hadn't run. But it's all easy enough in hindsight. Considering all that happened, he ran well, probably better than [in victory] at Exeter."

Another of the West Lockinge musketeers, Edredon Bleu, is a consideration for one of the five new races at the Festival, a championship chase over an intermediate 2m 5f designed to fill a gulf between the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Gold Cup itself.

There are now just 10 weeks to go to your new, bumper, soaraway Festival, when the Cheltenham executive will try to prove you cannot get enough of a good thing. The extra quintet of contests is required to flesh out the first ever four-day Olympics in the Cotswolds, for which 120,000 tickets have been sold.

The sports begin on Tuesday, 15 March, and run through to the Friday, with the Gold Cup at the centrepiece. The Thursday feature is now an event which grew to be known fondly as the Stayers' Hurdle, but is now ambitiously titled the World Hurdle.

These contests have their pedigree, but others have to establish one. The first virgins close day one. The cross-country race is already a part of the fabric elsewhere in the Cheltenham calendar and, as usual, the jockey with the best map and compass will win. The following Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is the most controversial of the additions.

The race is meant to be a complement to the Triumph Hurdle and, in Miss World style, the consolation will be handed out before the main prize. The Triumph Hurdle sponsors are keen to keep their race on Gold Cup day. This scheduling means that some horses will be trapped between the races, so a horse balloted out of the Triumph which could have run in the consolation will not be able to do so.

Rather more darkly, the consolation is a handicap worth just £25,000 less than the £100,000 main event and, according to one trainer at least, one which will have his brethren running up the skull and crossbones. "It could be plotted up," Jim Old, who won the 1996 Champion Hurdle with Collier Bay, said. "It's really worth having a tilt at it. With the prize-money, anyone would be thinking about that. It's bound to attract the wily and the crafty. A handicap should not be worth somewhere near what the major prize is."

The Thursday card will open with a 2m 5f novices' handicap chase initiated to attract runners whose capacity falls between the Arkle and Royal & SunAlliance chases. Then there is Edredon Bleu's possible race.

Finally, on the Friday, those still standing will be able to appreciate a novices' hurdle for whom the 2m 5f Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle is too sharp. That race, and the meeting as a whole, will be for stayers.

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