Racing: Spirit still willing but flesh proves too weak for ultimate test

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The Independent Online

Best Mate, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, has never been overraced. Quite the contrary. Seldom has a top horse been so protected from the brutal sport of jumping horses competing at high speed. It has become the custom of Henrietta Knight to run her precious charge just three times a season, but, ironically, even these kid gloves have not been soft enough.

Best Mate, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, has never been overraced. Quite the contrary. Seldom has a top horse been so protected from the brutal sport of jumping horses competing at high speed. It has become the custom of Henrietta Knight to run her precious charge just three times a season, but, ironically, even these kid gloves have not been soft enough.

Best Mate is gone, for this season at least, and his new-found propensity for breaking blood vessels is a sobering reminder that for all the beastly power and strength of the National Hunt horse, they are brittle and vulnerable animals.

The tall champion with the daisy-cutting action is now a damaged tall poppy and it is perhaps now easier to marvel at the horse's achievements, to laud his readiness for combat these last three springs in the Cotswolds.

Best Mate's absence from next week's festivities is a sadness for connections, ante-post punters and the purist eye that likes to see greatness on a racecourse. It is a small sadness too for whoever produces the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner a week today, for, no matter how authoritative the victory, there will always be the caveat about what would have happened with Best Mate in the mix.

This has been the worst season of Best Mate's career, during which the fates seemed to be forming a long line across the hill crest. There was a scrambling debut victory at Exeter, followed by an insipid defeat at Leopardstown, where he was desperately close to losing his proud record of not being out of the first two on his 21st outing.

Yet faith has not been in diminishing supply at West Lockinge Farm this spring. "I don't like making excuses for a horse so I'm not going to make one for him about Ireland," Terry Biddlecombe, the former champion jockey and trainer's husband, said. "I want to make four. He banged his head going over, then the ground was totally against him. He did the splits at the first fence and pulled muscles across his shoulders. He wrenched himself. Then he came back with a cough. With all that going on it might just have been one of his best runs."

Next week, we will miss the quest to turn over yet another dusty page in the record book, but, most of all, we will miss the willing flesh and spirit of Best Mate at full flight.

At his best, he is everything a National Hunt horse can be. An animal that vaults quickly and with precision, one which travels smoothly throughout his races. Also a nimble athlete, like a cat burglar on moonlit roof tiles. And, as he exhibited 12 months ago, Best Mate can finally introduce bravery into this compelling brew. He is tall, he is athletic and, in this most rugged of sports, quite beautiful. We hope to see not only his like, but the horse himself again.

To do so he will have to overcome an affliction which hovers over many racehorses, the good and the bad. "After they have done strenuous exercise, and it invariably happens during fast work or a race, quite a high proportion of horses bleed a little into their lungs," Peter Webbon, veterinary director at the Jockey Club, said yesterday. "But the volume of blood you are talking of is a teaspoon. A tiny amount.

"Sometimes, instead of just a little seepage from a small blood vessel, a more major blood vessel will leak or burst. Then you get a larger volume of blood which will appear at the horse's nose. That is probably what's happened to Best Mate.

"Clearly that affects the horse, as a large volume of blood can block the airways. It also sets up in the lungs an inflammatory reaction and, if you continue to gallop or race while that reaction is in place, the horse is susceptible to bleeding again. So I would completely agree they have done exactly the right thing with this horse. Clearly, he needs an appropriate period of rest to get over it.

"It happens more frequently with age. It's a miles-on-the-clock phenomenon. The more a horse gallops, the more likely it is to happen. The average horse which has suffered that level of bleeding would need at least a month without doing fast work to let the lungs settle down."

There are probably those who will attend the Festival next week who would gladly give blood themselves if it meant Best Mate getting back on the racecourse. Next Friday afternoon we will have a new champion, but, unfortunately for those around the latest hero, all the thoughts will be with the old one.

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