Racing: The best yet to come from Mate on date with destiny

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The Independent Online

For a landmark so significant, an achievement so rarely fulfilled, a third Cheltenham Gold Cup looks dangerously available to Best Mate at the foot of Cleeve Hill this afternoon. The fates seem to have been his outriders this spring.

While Henrietta Knight's champion has moved smoothly through his training programme, the significant others have been removed from his path. The young pretender, Kingscliff, lost a protracted struggle with injury, while the French colossus, Jair Du Cochet, lost his life itself on the French gallops of Guillaume Macaire. What remains is a small, relatively talon-free field of 10 runners. Indeed, without Best Mate it would be a very plain affair.

Yet, when legend beckons, there is no easy ride. No Blue Riband has ever been gifted and do not tell Jim Culloty, Best Mate's jockey, that Gold Cups are delivered on a cushion.

The Killarney-born man leaves the concerns of history to other scholars. Culloty prefers different lessons. He is more concerned with geography and the path he will chart around Prestbury Park this afternoon, with biology and the hope that Best Mate arrives in the Cotswolds in the sharpest of health. "History is for everyone else to talk about," he says. "My job is to win a horse race on the Thursday of Cheltenham. That's all I think about."

Culloty worries about the shape of the contest, the 22 fences he will have to cross, but he worries only briefly. "If it's a fair race and it's run to its true merits I'll win, because he's the best horse in the race."

Nothing with a pulse, accoring to the rider, can beat Best Mate. It would take a force of nature. "Rain can beat him," he says, "if it turned up a bog. I can't think of much else apart from that."

Culloty is further fortified by the thought that the T-shirts are building up in his wardrobe. On the two occasions he has been here before both elements of the partnership were impeccable. By now he knows his mate.

"He'll never be mad keen and he'll never sprint," the jockey says. "To ride he's just an ordinary horse with a high cruising speed who's a good jumper. He doesn't outsmart horses, he just beats them fair and square.

"He's 16.3 hands, a huge horse even though he doesn't look it because he's in such good proportion. The only time you recognise he's a big horse is when you're by the side of him there waiting to get a leg up. If a horse rides like a huge horse, it's usually because they are big, slow boats. Best Mate is well balanced and athletic. And, because of his size, he might only be just coming to his best now."

Such pronouncements would have seemed incongruous in the immediate aftermath of Best Mate's seasonal debut, a Huntingdon defeat in November at the hands of Jair Du Cochet. The reaction then was as if the temple walls were falling in. It was quickly back to veneration, however, when the nine-year-old left good horses for dead in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. The winning distance was nine lengths, the gulf in class inestimable and the domination could have been even more supreme.

"He was awesome," Culloty says. "He never left second gear until I asked him from the second last. Then he sprinted. At any stage, if I'd given him an inch of rein, he would have taken 20 lengths out of the field. He jumped brilliantly and that's as good a feel as he's ever given me. He's at least as good now as he's ever been, if not better."

In numbers, at least, it is not a one-horse race. The markets tell us that Martin Pipe's Therealbandit should be the most potent challenger, even though the trainer has already said he is running for second place at best. This, it seems, may be a rather disingenuous statement.

"If you believe that you'll believe anything," David Johnson, Therealbandit's owner, says. "Martin's being polite to Best Mate because he is a champion. We may well come second, if we're lucky, but it won't be by design. Martin never runs to come second to anyone."

The small field should help Therealbandit, but novices have a horrible record in the Blue Riband. None of their number has won since Captain Christy in 1974. A total of 18 have tried and all have lost. Most of them have failed even to complete and the fate of Pipe and Johnson's Gloria Victis here in 2000 remains a grisly memory.

Keen Leader comes next in the list, which is somewhat surprising considering his tendency to get lost in this parish. Jonjo O'Neill's runner was deeply unconvincing when favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase here last year.

Beef Or Salmon, who leads the Irish challenge, has not been the same horse since he came close to killing himself at the third fence here 12 months ago. Harbour Pilot, who was third that day, is the more reliable of the travellers, and, by similar reckoning, Truckers Tavern, the runner-up from that race, must also be an each-way consideration.

Those two were little more than retinue on that chilly afternoon, though, and the huge likelihood this afternoon is of a replay, Best Mate first and the rest inconsequential.

Victory would make him the first odds-on winner since Arkle almost 40 years ago and further legitimise the links to Himself. At last, it seems, after the many pretenders, we have finally uncovered the genuine new Arkle.

Best Mate will be a short price in a small field, but that statistic will be the first victim to amnesia should the big horse finish the statistical job. After all, when Arkle came bounding up the hill to complete his hat-trick on St Patrick's Day of 1966, a spray of shamrock in his browband, he beat just four others, at odds of 1-10. That detail is now deservedly forgotten. It is the feat itself which remains.

Forty years on from Arkle's first victory, which followed the hat-trick of Cottage Rake (1948-1950), BEST MATE (nap 3.15) is under seven minutes away from a racing canonisation. Soon we will be talking about the chase to match Golden Miller's five Cheltenham Gold Cups (1932-36). Soon it will be a different quest, to find the new Best Mate.

TREBLE HEROES: THE HORSES WHO HAVE WON THREE OR MORE CHELTENHAM GOLD CUPS

GOLDEN MILLER

1932-1936
Trainer: B Briscoe
Jockeys: T Leader, W Scott, G Wilson, E Williams

The most prolific of all Gold Cup legends, Golden Miller dominated the race for five seasons, gaining the first of his victories at the age of five in 1932 when he upset the odds-on favourite Grakle. At the peak of his powers for the next two years, Basil Briscoe's chaser fulfilled the Gold Cup's original purpose as a Grand National trial when, in 1934, he became the only Cheltenham victor to win at Aintree in the same season. Golden Miller won 28 races, never fell in 52 starts and became the first jumper to enjoy hero status with the wider public.

COTTAGE RAKE

1948-50
Trainer: M V O'Brien
Jockey: A Brabazon

By the time Cottage Rake completed a hat-trick of Gold Cup wins in the post-war years, the Cheltenham Festival had assumed its modern guise, with the race established as chasing's Blue Riband and the emergence of Irish factor. The legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien, who won the Champion Hurdle three years running with Hatton's Grace (1949-51), completed the same feat with Cottage Rake, whose partnership with Aubrey Brabazon inspired a gambling call to arms: "Aubrey's up, the money's down, / The frightened bookies quake, / Come on me lads, and give a cheer; / Begod, 'tis Cottage Rake."

ARKLE

1964-66
Trainer: T Dreaper
Jockey: P Taaffe

Universally regarded as the greatest chaser, and perhaps the greatest racehorse, of all, Arkle's pre-eminence was established in 1964 when he humbled the previous year's Gold Cup winner, Mill House, who had been regarded as unbeatable until the emergence of his Irish rival. Arkle beat a total of just 10 rivals in gaining his three Gold Cups, but his superiority at Cheltenham and weight-carrying exploits in handicaps have become at once the stuff of folklore and of keenly felt living memory among older racing enthusiasts, summed up in the reverential nickname he has been accorded - Himself.

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