Racing: Majestic Mate starts a golden era for Knight

Young chaser fights off Irish outsider and former champion to grab Cheltenham glory for the odd couple of training
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The Independent Online

It has taken almost 40 years in the arrival but now, finally, National Hunt racing may have found its new Arkle. A deeply competitive Cheltenham Gold Cup was collected most gloriously yesterday by Best Mate, who possesses the twin qualities of youth and brilliance.

For now, and tantalisingly maybe into the future, there is nothing to touch him and Ladbroke offer just 8-1 that Best Mate will defend his crown successfully in 12 months' time.

"I always look for another horse like Best Mate, but I can never find one," Henrietta Knight, the winning trainer, said. "He's the best horse I've ever seen and I've always said that he is the perfect racehorse."

Not least of Best Mate's attributes is his naked beauty. A Festival crowd blown cold on a day of billowing hospitality units and hat chases needed warming yesterday and there was plenty to stimulate in the appearance of the best jumping horses in these islands. In the paddock, Best Mate was tall and imposing, an athlete with a high-jumper's physique.

Looks Like Trouble, was a different, if similarly inspiring, build altogether. He had only recently returned from long-term injury, but his jockey, Richard Johnson, did not seek to hide or protect. From the start, the big horse attacked from the front.

The pace was such that Shooting Light, under Tony McCoy, did not make it out on to the second circuit. Soon others, including Looks Like Trouble himself, showed signs of suffering. Best Mate, though, moved smoothest of all, his rider, Jim Culloty, tall as a hussar in the saddle.

Another old champion, See More Business, was in the vanguard, but, in the straight, it became a duel between Best Mate and Commanche Court. By the last, the British-trained horse was in front and from there his low, floating action took him clear. "If something had come to me, he would have pulled out a bit," Culloty reported. "It would have needed wings to get by.

"I was a nervous wreck, worried that I would cock it up because I knew the horse was good enough. It's all unreal because the Gold Cup is what every jockey aims for. It's the pinnacle."

It was an Everest, too, in the near 13-year training career of Henrietta Knight, a former teacher and possessor of an Oxford degree. Her husband, the ex-roistering jockey Terry Biddlecombe, has his qualification from the university of life. They form a partnership of true opposites at their West Lockinge yard in Oxfordshire.

Biddlecombe won the 1967 Gold Cup as a rider on Woodland Venture, but this was an even more pleasant experience. "That was a wonderful day," he said, "but this really is in a different class. There is so much more that goes into training a horse than riding him in a race."

The fourth member of the team is the owner Jim Lewis, whose maroon and light blue colours recognise his devotion to Aston Villa. "I thought that if Best Mate could finish in the first four, then he might come back and do better next year," he said. "I could not be audacious enough to think he could do it this time. But what is this horse going to do now?"

For certain, he will receive further tutoring at perhaps Britain's most idiosyncratic stables. "I call him the horse of dreams, a talented gentleman," Henrietta Knight said. "You can see it just in the way he walks. Terry says he's like Linford Christie without balls."