Best Mate looked like a champion here yesterday. The three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner did no disservice to his record as he crunched his bit and nodded regally in a paddock at Henrietta Knight's stables. He looked dark and substantial, but then so does a marshmallow. This is the essence with the tall horse.
Until he runs again, and the next appointment is the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on 1 November, we will not know if Best Mate is the same animal which used to sweep imperiously around Prestbury Park and several other locations in these islands. The doubt has been there ever since 10 March this year, eight days before the Gold Cup, when Best Mate was led off Mick Channon's gallops with blood seeping from his nose. He burst a blood vessel that day. He also burst a dream.
In the interim a horse called Kicking King has come along and Best Mate's authority as the best staying chaser around has been wiped out. Now the near 11-year-old is close to starting out all over again.
The faith, of course, will die last among his connections. Certainly Best Mate remained a sleek and persuasive figure yesterday and if anno Domini has overtaken him then it must be a Flat horse. Proof positive will come only when the heat dial is turned up to maximum, first off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on 19 November, when Kicking King is likely to be among formidable foes.
"You just can't fault him [Kicking King]," Knight said yesterday. "He's a superb horse. I don't think there's a chink in his armour. He's the best horse around. Apart from possibly our own. We don't know because they have never met. Providing we do not have a recurrence of what happened I can't see why he can't be as good as ever."
The vista changed quite horribly for Best Mate in the spring. Now the policy is to distance that bloody morning. "I won't take him to the place where he bled before," Knight said. "I don't want him to be concerned again by an uncomfortable experience. Horses are like elephants. They have a tremendous memory."
Sheer frailty, or even athletic deterioration, would be a bad answer to what happened to Best Mate. Those closest to him have had much time to come up with an alternative theory. "There was probably a virus lurking over him in the spring. He came back from Leopardstown a very sick horse," Knight said.
Since June, Best Mate has been back in work of the gentlest nature and the recuperation has not been new-fangled. "It's been the old-fashioned way," Knight said. "Plenty of fresh air. He goes out in the field every afternoon.
"We still think the world of him. He's got a low mileage and he's still a very fresh horse, full of enthusiasm. He still comes walking out of his stable as if he owns the world."
NB: Indian Maiden
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