Racing: Knight rules out new sole mate for Best Mate

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The Independent Online

For Best Mate, the future is to be one of friends reunited rather than intimacy a deux. The triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner has lost his long-time partner with the retirement of Jim Culloty, but no regular replacement is planned. "I think it will be a case of using the best available," said his trainer, Henrietta Knight, yesterday. "We will want only an experienced rider, and all the top jockeys already have jobs and commitments.

"It would not be fair or practical to ask one of them to commit to him full-time. Though of course it may turn out that the same man will ride him each time. But it will be a case of one race at a time and seeing who's around."

The 10-year-old has not run since finishing a below-par runner-up to Beef Or Salmon in the Lexus Chase in December, and has not had a gallop since bursting a blood vessel in a workout at home at West Lockinge a few days before his attempt at a fourth Gold Cup.

Knight, at Doncaster Sales yesterday, reported her Jim Lewis-owned stable star in good nick in his daily exercise under lass Jackie Jenner as he begins the build-up to his comeback, scheduled for the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on 1 November. "He has been ridden for six weeks now and doing long, steady canters. He is out in the field each afternoon and we couldn't be more pleased with him."

Best Mate started his 2001/02 season in the two-and-a-quarter mile race, and is unbeaten in three runs at the Devon track. "The race at Exeter is a shorter distance than the Gold Cup," added Knight, "but he has won it before, loves the track and for the first race of the season I don't mind going shorter when they are not completely wound up."

In his 21 starts to date, Best Mate has been ridden by Culloty, who plans to start training jumpers from a Co Cork base early next year, on all bar three occasions. Tony McCoy finished second on him in the 2001 King George VI Chase and then won the Kempton showpiece on him the following year, and Timmy Murphy inched him home on his seasonal debut at Exeter last year.

They are two obvious names in the frame if their commitments to Jonjo O'Neill and David Johnson, respectively, allow. One who is out of the reckoning is Mick Fitzgerald, who has discovered that he broke a bone in his neck in a fall at Market Rasen last month and faces months out of action. The extent of his injury, originally thought to be shoulder damage, was revealed by a scan and the 35-year-old has had a bone-graft.

It is a time for change chez Knight and husband Terry Biddlecombe, for yesterday they said goodbye to another of the yard's best mates, Edredon Bleu. The splendid 13-year-old, winner of 21 of his 46 races in Lewis's claret and blue, has been retired and has started a new life with the former jockey Graham Thorner and his wife, Caroline, who run a yard at Letcombe Regis, five miles from the horse's home of nine years.

For most of that time Edredon Bleu, a classy, honest, fighter and probably the fastest, most exciting crosser of a fence since Desert Orchid, has been one of the luminaries of the jumping game, owner of all the qualities desirable in the thoroughbred athlete. His finest moments came in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham two years ago, when he simply would not be denied in beating Direct Route a short-head, and in the King George VI Chase two years ago. He made the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon his own, winning four times in a row.

Last season, his racing spirit was still willing but his old legs could not keep up, and he was pulled up on his last two outings. There had been talk of finding one more easy early-season, fast-ground race to enable him to record a 50 per cent strike-rate over fences, but happily that came to nothing and, like Bradman, he retires with every glory but a set of figures. "It is the right decision," Knight said yesterday. "He made us, he owes us nothing, and to keep going and risking something going wrong would have been unthinkable."

Edredon Bleu will still be earning his corn. "He'll lead our young horses," Caroline Thorner said yesterday, "and he'll go back to Hen's for open days and will parade at Cheltenham and things like that. He's settled in fine, but will have to get used to different animals. We've got pot-bellied pigs and sheep, not ducks."

Another retirement has been announced, that of the trainer David Loder, who has cited health reasons for his decision to give up at the end of October. Loder, 41, has had a licence for 13 years, during which time he sent out high-class winners in Desert Prince, Starborough and Blue Duster, and worked for Godolphin.

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