21 March 2004

Dig deep for victory. Best Mate came towards us with just the final fence between him and triple Gold Cup immortality. He led Harbour Pilot by a length after that soaring leap at the second-last. But the flowing stride was now a grinding struggle. The Cheltenham run-in is the most brutal of closures. Best Mate would have to fight every yard of it.

There was beauty in the rawness. The truth was out here in the drizzle. Jim Culloty reefing his reins as he tried to get the champion to assert. Paul Carberry driving Harbour Pilot back at him on the inside, Andrew Thornton working his long legs on Sir Rembrandt on the outer. Best Mate had some steep history to climb.

It was much, much tougher than we expected and the better for it. The preliminaries had been in danger of swamping us in adulation. Sure Best Mate outshone all his rivals in the paddock, his gleaming coat and swaggering walk putting all bar the massive, jig-jogging Sir Rembrandt and the shining, short-tailed chesnut Beef Or Salmon into the shade. The blinkered Harbour Pilot had the sweat of tension on his neck, Therealbandit looked lean and light, and Keen Leader plonked round like an old cab horse with his tongue sticking out. But as they came on to the track and you looked up at the record crowds in the grandstand, expectation tightened on the chest. Three and a quarter miles and 22 fences, not to mention nine implacably opposed horses and jockeys, do not a formality make.

Best Mate’s jumping was a joy to watch. It is his balance, the set of his neck, the arc of his leap, that makes him exceptional. Henrietta Knight, who herself rode at Badminton, says he would have gone to the top in dressage, show-jumping or three-day event, and there is no reason to doubt her. For the whole first circuit and more, Best Mate and Culloty bowled smoothly in the leaders’ wake, the jockey’s hand light on the rein, the horse measuring the fences to perfection as they came to him. First Gold and Harbour Pilot might hustle but it was the others who would hurt.

As they swept towards the top of the hill for the final time there seemed no departure from the expected script. Keen Leader and Irish Hussar had been dropped, Therealbandit was weakening, Beef Or Salmon was working his way back but only four really counted. And Best Mate was looking awesome on the inside.Yet just how awesome?

Crossing the third-last he wasn’t going strong enough to take First Gold on the inner, and as he tried to tack out on the turn, Paul Carberry legitimately closed the door with little short of a shoulder-charge. For 20 fraught strides the favourite was trapped, but as they straightened out for the second last he had the legs to come outside Harbour Pilot and the power to get room off Sir Rembrandt and get a clear run at the fence ahead.

With four sweet strides Best Mate quickened in and over with the jump of the meeting. He was in front; First Gold was finished, Harbour Pilot and Sir Rembrandt were hard on the collar. The coveted third Gold Cup, the much-debated Arkle comparisons, were Best Mate’s for the taking. But look closely. Relentless gallops hurt champions and contenders alike. Best Mate was in extremis too.

At the fence he had no rhythm to his stride. Wise-headed Culloty let him `pop’ it, and then reached and reeled at the reins as he gathered the half ton of athlete beneath him and demanded one final lung-testing slog up the hill. This was no place for sentimental anthropomorphism. Culloty’s long Killarney accountant’s nose was the avenging beak of an eagle. The whip was up and Culloty smacked Best Mate hard across the rump and swung his arm and his body forward to insist that destiny should have its day.

Not one yard was now simple. In desperation Best Mate and Culloty answered the roar of the crowd to put Harbour Pilot behind them, but right at the death Sir Rembrandt closed to get within half a length, not three feet, at the line. It had been desperately close and the great breakers of cheers that rolled from the stands had as much relief as they did acclamation. But winning is everything. An ecstatic Culloty held three fingers to the sky. Who cares if Arkle did it easier, if next year might even prove one fight too far?

Two final images seared into the memory. First the very public one of the rippling waves of applauding hands as the amphitheatre, paddock-side crowd clapped and clapped the horse who had given them this moment to carry to their graves. Second, a much more private one a few minutes later up behind the dope test boxes.

Best Mate was being led round by Dave Reddy, as groom Jackie Jenner was collecting her trophy. The rain was sluicing down. But it mattered not a jot. Eventually Dave stopped him for a moment and we went up and patted Best Mate gratefully on the neck.

For three weeks racing and my former jockey profession has been heaped with ridicule and shame. For three days the Cheltenham Festival had thrilled us, and now Best Mate had given his answer. He had washed the old game clean.

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