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."