Racing: 'Watching him go to the start, I was thinking he was the most beautiful horse ever created'

It all ended where it started. Best Mate, the three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the most celebrated horse of his age, died in action yesterday at Exeter, the track where he first won over fences.

The horse, the modern-day Arkle, was making his seasonal reappearance on the edge of Dartmoor when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He will be buried at the course.

With an eerie finality, the 10-year-old died at the feet of his trainer, Henrietta Knight, who as usual refused to watch her horse running, choosing instead to wait by the final fence.

"I was the first person there," she said. "I knew immediately I was seeing a dead horse. The quicker it was over the better. A few minutes earlier I'd been leaning over the rail watching him walk down to the start and I just thought to myself that he was the most beautiful horse that was ever created. The next thing he comes back towards me, staggering, and it ended."

Best Mate won the Gold Cup, National Hunt racing's Blue Riband, held at the Cheltenham Festival, from 2002 to 2004. Statistically at least, he was the best jumping horse since Arkle, who completed the same treble before England won the World Cup.

Best Mate was virtually unbeatable until he ran in Ireland just after last Christmas, injuring himself and surrendering a winning sequence. In the build-up to the Gold Cup in March, he burst a blood vessel on the gallops at Knight's West Lockinge stables in Oxfordshire and was unable to defend his crown. Yesterday was the return.

Best Mate had been to Exeter three times before. But this was a different day, even at the outset, when for once, Best Mate was not expected to win. He was performing on ground softer than ideal and over a journey not long enough fully to express his talents. And the injuries had started to crowd in. Younger models were preferred and, on the bookmakers' boards, six others were favoured as the old champion was sent off at 12-1, the biggest price of his career.

A chestnut horse, Ashley Brook, made the running, but Best Mate was not far behind in second early on, his jumping again reliably clean and safe. After the fifth fence, however, others began to gather around the top weight and, by three out, Paul Carberry, the Irish jockey riding Best Mate for the first time, realised that the athlete beneath him was weakening. The partnership pulled up. Best Mate was being trotted back to unsaddle when he suffered a catastrophic heart attack by the final obstacle. Carberry jumped off and screens were swiftly erected to mask the gelding's body from the crowd.

As Best Mate was loaded into the horse ambulance, the course vet, Bob Barker, worked desperately to resuscitate his heart but by then he was almost certainly already dead. The tannoyed news of Best Mate's demise was met by a communal gasp from the grandstand.

"He was such a great horse and at least he didn't do something terrible like fall and break his leg," Knight said. "We will all miss him very, very much. The whole country will miss him. He was a popular horse who had a tremendous following. Even this morning he was getting good luck cards in the post.

"He was very much loved. He never did anyone any harm and he was a joy to work with. We are privileged to have ever had him to train. I thank my lucky stars that I had anything to do with him."

Best Mate was never out of the first two in his 21 races, 14 of which he won, earning more than £1m in prize money. But bald statistics do not do him justice. His legacy will be a smooth- galloping style and the most gloriously effective way of getting from one side of a fence to the other.

Now his connections, and the sport of racing, must go on without him. "It hasn't hit her yet, but she's a very tough cookie," said Terry Biddlecombe, the former champion jumps jockey and Knight's husband. "She's seen horses die before and you just have to accept these things. There might be a couple of tears later on, but it really hits you when you see the empty stable. We've been feeding the bastard every morning for seven years and now he's not going to be there."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine