Racing: Knight keeps guard on Best Mate but King is out of Cup

Two contrasting medical bulletins emerged yesterday concerning Gold Cup candidates. Best Mate, the three-time winner and current favourite, is fine; he has not caught the sore throat his nearest neighbour, Edredon Bleu, is suffering and is progressing smoothly towards the defence of his Cheltenham title. But Kicking King, the King George VI Chase hero and, until yesterday lunchtime, joint second-favourite with big-race sponsor Totesport, is not. The Irish challenger has picked up a low-grade infection and will miss the Festival.

Two contrasting medical bulletins emerged yesterday concerning Gold Cup candidates. Best Mate, the three-time winner and current favourite, is fine; he has not caught the sore throat his nearest neighbour, Edredon Bleu, is suffering and is progressing smoothly towards the defence of his Cheltenham title. But Kicking King, the King George VI Chase hero and, until yesterday lunchtime, joint second-favourite with big-race sponsor Totesport, is not. The Irish challenger has picked up a low-grade infection and will miss the Festival.

Best Mate made his final pre-Festival photocall yesterday on a damp, raw, sodden mid-morning at his West Lockinge home. Led by his devoted lass, Jackie Jenner, he appeared briefly; his normal, more vigorous, daily exercise had been completed hours earlier and, as far as could be ascertained as he walked round the paddock - he was well rugged up against the elements - the defending champ looked in fine, shiny fettle.

His trainer, Henrietta Knight, was most concerned with her charge's black, velvet muzzle. "Lovely and dry," she said as she stroked it, once Matey was safely back in the warmth of his box. "Nothing dripping. Wet noses are good on dogs, but not on horses."

The presence of illness is the trainer's nightmare; witness Jonjo O'Neill's traumatic season and now the news from Tom Taaffe's stables about Kicking King. Knight herself has had a dull time of it recently, although Glasker Mill's bumper win at Kempton on Saturday was encouraging. "All the horses have their own grooming kits, their own bridles, and their bits are dipped in an antiseptic solution," said Knight. "But what else can you do? How do you stop yourself getting a cold? You can be sneezed at in the supermarket.

"Best Mate was scoped last week and was absolutely fine. But to be honest, sometimes you don't really find out if they're carrying something until you run them. But the good thing about Matey is that when he got back from Leopardstown after Christmas he was pretty low and had a pile of antibiotics, so I hope that has give him an immunity from anything floating about."

At Straffan in Co Kildare yesterday the veterinary evidence belied Kicking King's healthy looks. "Nothing has been apparent," said a disappointed Taaffe, "but he didn't scope well. The horse always tells you when to run and unfortunately he's saying not to." With Cheltenham off the agenda, the seven-year-old's target will now be the Punchestown festival late next month.

Best Mate has two more serious grass gallops scheduled before his date with destiny 16 days hence. They will not take place at West Lockinge but up and across the Ridgeway at Mick Channon's East Ilsley. "He goes only seven furlongs," added Knight, "but it's a very stiff test uphill; we haven't got anything to equal it here. We know exactly how fit they are up that gallop."

Best Mate also has a schooling session on his agenda, only two days before the Gold Cup. "I know other trainers think me unwise schooling so close to the race," said Knight, "and I know there's a risk, but I think it's important for a horse to get his eye in." As this particular one has one of the best techniques in training, the words pudding and proof spring to mind.

Unusually, Best Mate goes to the Gold Cup off a defeat, but his season is always geared for just the one day. And, faced with the difficult task of preparing an athlete of delicate physical, and potentially mental, constitution, Knight has come up with the goods three times. "The public still adore Matey," she said, "but some of the so-called experts have been critical. But one thing that gets forgotten is that he's actually not a very robust horse. Those by his sire, Un Desperado, tend not to take a lot of racing. And if you overdo them, they're inclined to jack it in, to get sour about it.

"I think it's important for Best Mate to keep his aggressiveness for the big occasion. And I think he's physically stronger this time; certainly Jackie is finding him increasingly difficult to hold in his work."

Best Mate's conqueror at Leopardstown in December, Beef Or Salmon, was himself under the weather afterwards but has recovered from the illness that contributed to his defeat by Rule Supreme last month, and will have a gallop at Limerick racecourse on Friday.

But Knight nominates Kingscliff, now second market choice on his own, and Celestial Gold, as the pair she fears most, on the horses-for-courses basis. "Once a horse has proved he likes Cheltenham he will go well there again," she said.

Yesterday, even the farmyard ducks seemed subdued by the dank cold, but Hen was not. This time round, the pressure is rolling off her normally nervous back.

"It's the strongest field he's faced this time," she said. "And he's almost become the forgotten horse. But we haven't lost faith. We've had three victories, and that may be all we're allowed. If we get a fourth one, it will just be a bonus."

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