Racing: Knight's old servant has first crack at Beef Or Salmon

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The champ is out again at Huntingdon on Saturday, the prelude to his defence of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and there are plenty of brave souls willing to take him on in both races.

The champ is out again at Huntingdon on Saturday, the prelude to his defence of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and there are plenty of brave souls willing to take him on in both races.

If Best Mate, the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, was expecting an easy ride in the Peterborough Chase at the weekend then he is about to get a shock down to the bottom of his long, athletic legs. Pretenders in the shape of Jair Du Cochet, Valley Henry and La Landiere have not been frightened away by his "boo" form.

In addition, 35 animals were declared as entries for the King George yesterday, and the measure of the field was indicated by the odds of such as Behrajan, a 33-1 shot, and Gold Cup runner-up Commanche Court, who can be backed at the same price.

Nicky Henderson, who has three in the race - Fondmort, Irish Hussar and Marlborough - is looking forward to the Yuletide challenge, one in which Marlborough made Best Mate dig down to his very marrow last year. "You might avoid him at Huntingdon or in a prep race, but you cannot get away from the King George and the Gold Cup," the Seven Barrows trainer said here yesterday. "They are the two races. You don't avoid one horse in those races and I think Marlborough proved that last year when he gave Best Mate the fright of his life.

"That proved that Best Mate is at least approachable, if maybe not unbeatable. The door is always open because racing is not predictable.

"The handicapper put Fondmort up 10lb for Saturday [following victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup] and I think we'd go to Cheltenham [and the Tripleprint Gold Cup] along the way. He's actually rated above Marlborough now. If he's ever going to get three miles then it's round here. He's creeping into the realms of a Grade One horse."

Tony McCoy, who rode Best Mate to success in the King George last season, has also convinced himself of his old friend's fallibility. "He's a real good stayer with a very high cruising speed and this race and track suits him provided they go quick enough," the champion jockey said. "But every horse is beatable and he's no different. He's a much better horse off a really strong gallop and, if he didn't get that, then he's definitely vulnerable.

"I thought Jair Du Cochet was very impressive in winning the Feltham [Novices' Chase] here last year. If you weren't going to ride Best Mate you'd like to be on him."

The top seat will, in fact, go to Jim Culloty, the Gold Cup-winning rider who has missed the last two King Georges through injury and suspension. The old partnership was ignited on the gallops yesterday. "I schooled him this morning and he was in great form," the jockey said. "He had a setback last season [before his debut], but this time we've had a clear run."

It will be an informative 72 hours for National Hunt racing for, as well as the generous cast list in Britain, there is cracking contest in the unlikely setting of Clonmel this afternoon. The Irish venue witnesses the return of Beef Or Salmon and he too has a proper encounter ahead of him rather than a trail of petals as Best Mate's notable stablemate Edredon Bleu has travelled over from West Lockinge Farm to have first thrust at the Irish tyro.

Beef Or Salmon collected the Clonmel Oil Chase 12 months ago on his march through the grades, one which was arrested only when he fell in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. "Beef Or Salmon is in good form, it's going to be a proper race," Michael Hourigan, his trainer, said yesterday. "He has to start somewhere this season and this is the day, I wasn't afraid to run him last year and I'm not afraid to run him this year."

Henrietta Knight, Edredon Bleu's trainer, added: "I hope he will run well and adapt to the track. We will be walking it in the morning. He's run three races quickly together this autumn but he has a big heart. He had a good journey over and travelled well.

"Best Mate is fit and well. I don't want to look too far ahead, we are just taking one step at a time with him. He is on course for Huntingdon, but I do not want to look beyond that. He definitely needs the rain to come in the meantime. Jim Culloty will ride him, providing he is not banned."

* Odds-on punters burned their fingers yesterday when the 1-7 chance Dark Character refused at the third flight in the novices' hurdle at Hexham won by 50-1 chance Gunson Hight. Among bets on the favourite were two of £1,100 to win £200 and four of £600 to win £100.

* Michael Kinane failed to make a winning start as John Oxx's stable jockey when Aliyshan finished unplaced in the Listed Prix Belle de Nuit at Maisons-Laffitte yesterday.

* Godolphin have bought Snow Ridge, 10-1 second favourite with Coral for next year's Derby, from the Weinstock family. Trained by Marcus Tregoning to win the Royal Lodge Stakes, he will winter in Dubai.