Best Mate's owner Lewis breezes back to big time

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Sometimes a horse takes centre stage, sometimes a jockey or trainer. But yesterday belonged to one of the men who pays the bills as owner Jim Lewis stoodin the winner's circle after a top-level race for the first time since his beloved Best Mate won the last of his three Cheltenham Gold Cups four years ago.

The occasion was the Tolworth Hurdle. The horse carrying Lewis's famous claret-and-blue silks was a progressive young hurdler, Breedsbreeze, who confirmed himself right in the front rank of novices with an easy victory. And for Lewis, 73, who wears his heart as well as the colours of his equally beloved Aston Villa in full public view, it was an emotional return to the sport after the heartbreak of losing his best horse and his wife, Valerie, in quick succession.

"It was a terrible time for me," he said, "and I was happy tostep back. I began to thinkthat perhaps that phase of my life had come to an end, and it was time for me to watch it on the telly and give someone else a turn.

"But then these young horses come along, you hear of them, get offered them, and maybe now it's my turn again. And when I arrived here today, people remembered me, and the welcome I had was unbelievable. It almost made me cry."

Breedsbreeze, trained by Paul Nicholls, has a long road ahead before he can even start to raise his eyes towards the triple Cheltenham hero. But the six-year-old has already done something the great horse did not. Best Mate could finish only second in his Tolworth Hurdle, one of the best mid-season pointers to the novice championships in March.

"Matey was second at the Festival, so maybe this is an omen," added Lewis. Breedsbreeze, who denied the previously unbeaten Deep Purple a six-timer by a smooth length and three-quarters, is now among the market leaders for both the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, over yesterday's two miles, and the longer Ballymore Properties Hurdle. Ground conditions will determine his target.

Best Mate was, of course, trained by Henrietta Knight, whose Calgary Bay finished third yesterday. But Lewis would have nothing sinister read into his change of allegiance. "It's just that she hasn't offered me a horse recently," he explained. "But I sent her a text this morning wishing her luck, and got one back the same."

Lewis, with his Villa scarf warding off the cold, admitted he gave away his ticket for yesterday's FA Cup clash with Manchester United. "Priorities," he said. "But wherever we areat 10 past five on the drive home, we'll stop and find a pub to watch."

Breedsbreeze, the 6-4 favourite, was the middle leg of a hat-trick for Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, initiated by chaser Master Minded (9-4) and juvenile hurdler Five Dream (16-1).

Master Minded is another to sport Gold Cup-winning silks, those of Clive Smith's current champion, Kauto Star. The five-year-old, one of France's best young chasers last year when with Guillaume Macaire, made the transfer from Aquitaine to Somerset for a reputed 400,000 and yesterday earned 15,657 by beating Hasty Prince three-and-a-half lengths in the two-mile handicap.

More important, though, was the style of the victory, rather than the substance. On his British debut at Exeter last month Master Minded blundered and unseated Sam Thomas; this time, after some intensive reminders about technique at home, he wasfoot-perfect, extravagant and clever as required.

"Job done," said Nicholls' assistant, Dan Skelton. "He's only five, and our emphasis will be on his future." Master Minded's prime target at the Cheltenham Festival will be the two-and-a-half mile Ryanair Chase.