Racing: Murphy handed Best Mate honour

The rehabilitation of Timmy Murphy continued yesterday morning when he was chosen over Tony McCoy to replace injured Jim Culloty on Best Mate when the triple Gold Cup hero makes his seasonal debut at Exeter on Friday.

The rehabilitation of Timmy Murphy continued yesterday morning when he was chosen over Tony McCoy to replace injured Jim Culloty on Best Mate when the triple Gold Cup hero makes his seasonal debut at Exeter on Friday. And it turned out to be a decision made by trainer Henrietta Knight and owner Jim Lewis with almost spooky prescience, for a few hours after being given the thumbs down, McCoy hurt one of those very digits in a freak incident before the opening race at Folkestone, and faces a while off games.

Murphy first; and he, too, seems to have adopted something of the mystic tag. On Saturday, after having consolidated his position as the main man with Martin Pipe with four high-profile winners on the best afternoon of his career, the man from Co Wexford voiced, with growing assuredness, the notion that some horses might be suited better by his lighter touch, a velvet glove over the iron fist, than by McCoy's forcing ways. Knight and Lewis have come to the same conclusion where Best Mate is concerned.

"We weighed up the pros and cons," said Knight. "Obviously, Mr Lewis has a lot of loyalty to Tony McCoy, who has ridden winners for him in the past. But we decided that Timmy Murphy's style of riding would suit the horse better."

Friday will be the first time that Best Mate will have been ridden in public by anyone but Culloty or McCoy since his days as an Irish point-to-pointer. The cool, patient approach that is Murphy's trademark, and was shown to excellent effect on Celestial Gold in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and on Forest Chief at Leicester yesterday, his eighth winner in four days, has landed him this latest vote of confidence.

Murphy, 30, had his first sit on the nine-year-old at the weekend, in a low-key schooling session at West Lockinge. "He was everything I expected him to be," said the Irishman, the regular pilot of one of Best Mate's championship rivals, Beef Or Salmon. "He's obviously a fabulous horse, his record says it all and it's a privilege just to be asked to ride him. And having also ridden Beef Or Salmon, I will have been on the two best staying chasers around. It's just a pleasure to be able to say you've ridden both."

A maximum of six will turn out in the William Hill Chase against Best Mate, headed by Sir Rembrandt, who was only half a length behind him at Cheltenham in March, and already has an encouraging second place in the Charlie Hall Chase 18 days ago under his girth this term.

Three of the other contenders declared yesterday, Hand Inn Hand and the stablemates Seebald and Upgrade, are also match-fit, but of the remaining pair, One Knight has not run since falling at the first in last year's Hennessy and Frenchman's Creek's most recent outing was his third place in the 2002 renewal of the race formerly known as the Whitbread.

Knight is fully aware that the eagerly-awaited return to the fray of the sport's icon in the £65,000 contest specially designed for him will be no sinecure. "It will be a good race," she said. "I am delighted with him and he is ready for a race, but others have had the benefit of a run already."

As a precaution in case the West Country weather turns against him, Best Mate has also been entered, along with 11 others including stablemate Edredon Bleu, in Saturday's Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in which he was beaten, on boggy ground, last year. But the forecast is for the star's favoured good going on Haldon Hill.

It will be little comfort to McCoy that Culloty, who is also suffering from an injured thumb, does not plan a return to action for another three weeks.

But McCoy's is merely dislocated, not broken: the nine-times champion did the damage when his right hand became caught up in the reins after Flying Patriarch spooked and unseated him before the start of the juvenile hurdle. He was diagnosed and treated at a hospital in Swindon, near his home, and is expected to recover with his usual resilience.

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