Racing: Knight's day should be one to treasure

Champions to the fore in charge for history
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The Independent Online

The question of the week is, of course, can Best Mate do it? Having emulated Easter Hero and L'Escargot in becoming a dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, can he join Golden Miller, Cottage Rake and Arkle in the National Hunt pantheon? The answer is yes, but his third victory will not necessarily imply parity with those who have gone before. Three Gold Cups is an expression of quantity, which does not always equate with quality.

If numbers were all-important, then Cottage Rake would be a better horse than Easter Hero, which he most certainly was not. In fact, it can be cogently argued that Easter Hero, not Golden Miller, was the best chaser to race in the first half of the last century. Arkle won "only" three Gold Cups, to Golden Miller's five, but he was indisputably the greatest of all.

Comparisons may be "odorous" but they are also inevitable and, at the risk of sounding a party pooper, Best Mate is not only not as good as Arkle, he is not yet even as good as Desert Orchid, who was, underneath all the populist Dessie hoo-ha, an extraordinarily gifted athlete, rated one of the six best chasers of all time. Best Mate may be as good, or even better, but the twist is that, because of the way he is campaigned, he will probably not achieve the measure of excellence on paper that may be his due. Both Arkle and Desert Orchid successfully gave weight away in handicaps as well as winning conditions races, something that Henrietta Knight and Jim Lewis will not ask their champion to do.

But still, Best Mate is setting a mighty standard for steeplechasing's third century, and if he cannot be celebrated in science he certainly should be in art. He may not be the very, very best but he is none the less very, very good, and one such as he does not come along too often.

He has all the talents; apart from his excellence as a staying chaser, he is handsome, intelligent, kind and thoroughly enjoys life. His record is almost impeccable: 12 wins from 18 starts, never out of the first two and never a hint of a fall at a fence or hurdle. At nine, the Irish-bred son of Un Desperado is approaching the prime of his life.

He will face a maximum of 10 rivals in Thursday's 76th Gold Cup. When Golden Miller brought up his hat-trick in 1934 as a seven-year-old on his way to his unique same-season Grand National victory, he repelled six, all of whom had a crack at him, headed by the high-class five-year-old Avenger and the previous year's Aintree hero Kellsboro Jack. In 1950, at the age of 11, Cottage Rake cantered home in front of King George winner Finnure and seven vastly inferior rivals. Arkle, in 1966 when he was nine, had the easiest task; at 1-10 he barely had to come off the bit to beat useful Dormant and three no-hopers by 30 lengths and more.

Best Mate will not have it all his own way, and under some circumstances, as the sadly absent Jair Du Cochet showed at Huntingdon last November, he is not invincible. But on all known form he is easily the best horse in the race; he looked simply awesome when he beat Le Coudray and Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown in December. Therealbandit, the novice, and First Gold, the veteran, are taken to follow him home. Thursday should be a day to treasure. Be there if you can.

This year's Cheltenham meeting is something of a rarity in that all four senior champions are returning to defend their titles. As well as Best Mate, Rooster Booster in the Champion Hurdle, Moscow Flyer in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Baracouda in the Stayers' Hurdle have nailed their colours to the mast. This scenario has occurred only twice before: in 1983, when the horses involved were Silver Buck, For Auction, Rathgorman and Crimson Embers; and last year, when Best Mate, Hors La Loi, Flagship Uberalles and Baracouda came back. Never have all four reigning kings successfully defended their crowns.

This week, each of the quartet will start favourite and each is the highest-rated horse in his division. First up, on Tuesday, is Rooster Booster, and the Champion Hurdle does seem easier to win more than once than the Gold Cup, with five triple and seven double champions. The likeable Philip Hobbs-trained grey produced the best handicap-hurdle performance in a decade when touched off by a short-head by Geos in the Tote Gold Trophy last month, giving the winner 17lb. But history says it is hard for a horse as old as 10 - only Hatton's Grace and Sea Pigeon have done so - and this year the baton may be passed to an emerging star, the Paul Nicholls-trained Rigmarole. Last year's runner-up Westender, just over two lengths adrift of Rooster Booster in sixth place at Newbury, is the other danger, with Davenport Milenium the best of the longer shots.

Nicholls is locked in battle with Martin Pipe at the head of the trainers' table, and with £2.3m prize money on offer this week that duel makes a piquant side-dish to the main courses. The Champion Chase on Wednesday gives Nicholls another chance to draw ahead; his Azertyuiop goes head-to-head with Moscow Flyer and can avenge his Tingle Creek Chase defeat by the Irish star.

The French horse Baracouda, from the Doumen family yard near Chantilly, is not only the highest-rated stayer in training, but the highest-rated hurdler, and on Thursday, as a bonne bouche to the main event, should not be troubled to become the first triple winner of the marathon title.