Racing: Sacré Bleu - Culloty rides again for the Best of action replays

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The Independent Online

For any member of that select brethren of the Turf, the Society of Steeplechase Stoics, whose familiarity with fracture specialists is an occupational obligation, sustaining a broken thumb in a fall can be considered almost fortuitous. For a man blessed with as many select mounts as Henrietta Knight's stable jockey, Jim Culloty, the treatment of the injury has not been as painful as scrutinising the winning rides he has missed in his six weeks out. Especially Best Mate's recent first appearance of what is inevitably "a limited season only", as they say in theatreland, culminating in a fourth Cheltenham Gold Cup attempt in March.

Timmy Murphy substituted for Culloty in that event at Exeter, and although only a short head separated Best Mate from the runner-up, Seebald, it was considered a satisfactory reintroduction to the racecourse for the gelding who officially becomes a 10-year-old on New Year's Day.

Culloty had to make do with riding one of jump racing's best-loved horses in his head. Not easy, presumably, when you have partnered Best Mate in 17 of his 20 outings. Does he find himself silently offering advice and criticism? "Sure, I'd be thinking about it, but I wouldn't say it out loud," he says. "Particularly as I was working for the BBC [analysing the race]. Anyway, I'd have probably been proved wrong! All I ask is that the jockeys who ride my horses when I'm out injured look after them, so that they're there for me when I come back. I was very impressed with his [Best Mate's] first run, seeing that it was a false-run race, with a sprint finish, against a very good two-miler."

The Irishman adds: "Of course, I'd have loved to have been on Best Mate. But when you're out, you have to take it on the chin. It's frustrating, but that's racing. You quickly learn not to get too despondent when things go against you, and don't get too excited when things are going well. I've won a Grand National and lots of other good races because of other fellas' injuries."

Yet has he never harboured the faintest apprehension that another jockey could come in for the ride - and keep it? "No, not really," he says. "That's not to say I get complacent. I've worked hard to get this position and I still give 100 per cent. If I didn't, I'd expect to get jocked off."

He adds: "I consider myself unbelievably fortunate. At the time I went to Henrietta's, there were 10 different jobs I could have gone to. I certainly don't think that any of the others could have been better. Every jockey would love to be in my position and to ride Best Mate."

Culloty, who turned 31 on Friday, is on his second day back when we meet on a particularly bleak afternoon at Windsor, one of those masochists-only meetings, with a cruel wind and sluicing rain. Two rides, both unplaced, may have been inauspicious, but his return to the saddle relatively swiftly after having a plate removed from his damaged thumb is satisfaction enough, ahead of his reassociation with Edredon Bleu in today's King George VI Chase at Kempton, followed by Best Mate's pre-Cheltenham race, Tuesday's Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.

It is the same schedule for both horses as last season, though Edredon Bleu's victory in the King George was something of a turn-up, not least because it had been originally assumed that Best Mate would contest the Kempton feature. There were accusations that Knight, her husband and assistant Terry Biddlecombe, owner Jim Lewis and Culloty had "run scared" of the opposition at the Surrey course by rerouting "Matey" to Ireland.

"Henrietta and I got serious stick over it, because everybody thought Best Mate should have gone to Kempton," says Culloty. "But Edredon Bleu won the King George and Best Mate went to Leopardstown and pissed up. It was great from our point of view. Henrietta was able to stick her fingers up to all the [media] knockers who said she was doing the wrong thing. As far as she was concerned, she said, 'I train the horses, you stick to writing about them'."

Edredon Bleu, now rising 13 years, has been a valiant servant, but surely age must have diminished his powers? "Last year, I thought he might run well, but I couldn't really see him winning it. As soon as we passed the post, I thought, 'F***ing hell. That's unbelievable. Amazing'. He doesn't appear to be going into the race in the same form this year, but having said that, he is in great shape at home. It would be foolish to write him off. Hopefully, we won't get any more rain. The better the ground, the better he'll be."

The same qualification applies to Best Mate, who will be odds-on to defeat possibly no more than three rivals on Tuesday. "The faster the ground, the better he is. The softer the ground, the worse he is," says Culloty, who insists that the horse's dislike of the latter "doesn't make him less of a champion", as some would contend. The jockey adds: "Every horse has got a preference. People say, 'Good horses go on any ground'. But that's the biggest load of s*** I've ever heard in my life."

Neither will he hear ill of Knight's insistence that Best Mate's schedule should not include more than three races a season - a policy that has the critics carping that the horse is wrapped in cotton wool.

"Put it this way, he's never been injured," retorts Culloty. "At any race meeting, look at the 10-year-olds on the card. How many of them are coming back from leg injures, and are never as good as they were? Looks Like Trouble won the Gold Cup [in 2001] as a seven-year-old and everyone said he was a horse to follow. He certainly would have been, too. He was a f***ing machine. But he went to Downpatrick and broke down. Best Mate hasn't."

Those sentiments suggest Best Mate returns on Tuesday to the best of hands, those that know him best, and now have both thumbs turned up once more.

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