Racing: Sands checks gallant Mate

Weight of expectation proves too much for Gold Cup hope, but Edredon lifts Knight's blues
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The Independent Online

The phrase "mixed emotions" was all too apt for trainer Henrietta Knight even before racing started yesterday. Having suffered the death of her mother, Hester, last Wednesday, Knight put on her brave face and went racing, getting an across-the-card double here and at Huntingdon. But it was not the double expected by the stable or the punters, as the joint second favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Best Mate, was beaten, at 8-13, by Martin Pipe's Wahiba Sands in the First National Gold Cup. Twenty minutes later, Knight's Edredon Bleu produced some brilliant jumps to take the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon for the fourth year in succession.

Knight's personal loss would no doubt put Best Mate's defeat into proper perspective, but there was no disguising the sense of disappointment that hung over Ascot after the race. Virtually the entire crowd came down to the parade ring to watch him beforehand. However, set to concede 20lb to his three rivals, Best Mate, who had looked slightly edgy before the start, couldn't quite come up with the smart jumping and power running that are his trade- mark as the race came to the business end.

Given a useful lead by the New Zealand-bred Logician, Best Mate was tucked in second place by his jockey, Jim Culloty, for all but the last furlong and a half. But as he took over the lead at that point, Tony McCoy, who had switched off Wahiba Sands in last place for most of the race, brought his horse wide and outjumped Best Mate at the last. To his great credit, Best Mate renewed his challenge on the run to the line and went down by half a length, giving connections justifiable excuses for the letdown.

"The weight killed him," Knight's husband, Terry Biddlecombe, said in the immediate aftermath. "If he'd pinged the last he might have won it, and he battled back really well. But he got close to a few, and that and the weight made the difference.

"He needs further, in any case. He's run a bloody blinder, really," Biddlecombe added, in the bullish style that all those who remember his boisterous riding career would relish.

Jim Lewis, the owner of both Best Mate and Edredon Bleu, who was at Huntingdon, preferred to josh about "having a word with McCoy about beating us", rather than dwelling too much on the defeat. "Matey's lost by half a length, carrying all that weight, and he's made just one mistake, three out, which probably cost us the race. But I'm a lucky guy."

Nevertheless, there were some telling professional reactions to Best Mate's defeat. Ladbrokes pushed him out from 8-1 to 10-1,and Hills from 7-1 to 8-1, in the Gold Cup betting, while Victor Chandler left him at 8-1. There were no odds yet for the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, but then there were mixed messages coming from connections. "It's in the back of our minds," Biddlecombe said, "but we'll have to talk it over with Hen." At Huntingdon, Lewis suggested that "Hen wasn't keen" on the Kempton prize, so punters will have to wait for Best Mate's next move.

Knight, who was at Huntingdon to greet Edredon Bleu back after his all-the-way success, understandably made herself scarce afterwards. But she usually finds a quiet place to hide during races involving her horses, anyway.

Apart from a mistake at the penultimate fence, Edredon Bleu simply powered his rivals into the ground under Norman Williamson, producing spectacular leaps at the fence in front of the stands on the first circuit and again at the last to end the hopes of Nicky Henderson's gallant Geos, who was making his debut over British fences. Mary Reveley's 9-4 second favourite, Sleeping Night, finished a distant last of four.

Ladbrokes tightened Edredon Bleu's odds for the two-mile Champion Chase from 7-2 to 2-1, with Hills going 5-2 (from 7-2) and Chandler leaving him at 3-1. Wahiba Sands was given a general quote of 14-1, but Ladbrokes offered 12-1. However, his owner, David Johnson, who gallantly conceded that Best Mate "was the victor, given the weight difference", professed himself "still unsure about Wahiba Sands' best distance" after this victory over two miles and four furlongs.

Earlier here, Tom Scudamore rode his first winner in Johnson's colours on the Pipe "second string" Montreal in the three-mile hurdle. McCoy had set up his double, and Pipe's treble, with a win on Live The Dream in the first race, after which the horse was greeted rapturously by this owners, who include two former bunny-girls.

François Doumen's 10-year-old Djeddah rolled back the years to take the John Doyle Chase, his first English win in nearly five years, while Culloty completed a double, first on Returning, trained by Knight, and then on Rouble in the last. But it will be the one that got away that will hurt Culloty this morning.

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