23 November 2003

Disappointment but not disaster: Best Mate was given an eight-length trouncing by French star Jair Du Cochet on his comeback run at a rain-soaked Huntingdon, but still did enough to persuade both bookmakers and his ever growing fan club that the dream is still on of landing a third Gold Cup at Cheltenham next March. Whether those hopes still have a measure of wishful thinking is now the season’s biggest question.

It was a day when old truths would out. One of these is to play with facts not statements, to remember that fitness always counts. French trainer Guillaume Macaire may have said beforehand that his horse had little chance of beating Best Mate. Henrietta Knight may have loyally claimed that Best Mate was in better shape than last year, but Jair Du Cochet is a good horse who had already run twice this season, winning impressively just three weeks ago. Best Mate had not run since March. Guillaume Macaire has just become the first French trainer to saddle 200 winners in a calendar year. Any more questions?

Nonetheless, there was an unhappy feeling of let-down as connections gathered round Best Mate as he was led back into the paddock afterwards to loud and sympathetic applause from his devoted fans. It was as if they were cheering to keep their spirits up. There had been no such need as Jackie Jenner first led him round 20 minutes before. The skies might have been grey, the rain persistent, the ground getting sticky but the biggest chasing star since Arkle was back on his journey to match that horse’s triple Gold Cup triumphs. Knight’s book was doing good business across the lawn. It was easy to believe that this was not much more than a penalty kick. Easy but wrong.

The five opponents included two no-hopers, the multiple winning mare La Landiere making her seasonal debut, the talented Valley Henry on a retrieving mission after tipping up at Wetherby and Jair Du Cochet, a huge power-house of a horse gleaming with health despite the gloom. In hindsight the straws were already out in the squally wind.

In the race it took until the final turn for the penny to fully drop. Although Jair Du Cochet led down the back straight for the first time, Best Mate had taken over by the time the leading four came past the stands and was even cockily looking out towards the spectators as fresh horses do. But into the back straight for the second time and little Jacques Ricou sent his big partner into attack and any delusions that Best Mate would have to do anything but work hard to hold his title were quickly expelled.

For three fences he coasted behind the leader, but then what looked like nothing more than a minor mistake lost him momentum and suddenly Jair Du Cochet’s big stride reminded you what a potential star he had looked when he first came over to run away with hurdle races at Chepstow and Cheltenham two seasons ago. Jim Culloty took Best Mate to the inside round the last turn with Valley Henry trying to challenge outside. If Best Mate was on his game he would challenge now. He didn’t.

To an outsider it was typical of what happens when a horse gets caught short first time out. Jair Du Cochet was immediately in command once he had jumped the second last, hung out left and made a hash of the last but still galloped impressively all the way to the line from what looked a decidedly leg-weary Best Mate.

“Got a bit tired,” was the succinct verdict of Terry Biddlecombe, the trainer’s husband, but Jim Culloty had more elaborate thoughts about the ground being too soft. “When the ground is wet and sloppy he can’t gallop, let alone jump in it,” said the jockey. “It was like that when he got run over by Barton over hurdles at Aintree.”

Explanations in the heat of the moment need treating with caution. But this was one best unheard. For yesterday’s ground was by no means heavy and conditions could easily be similar at either Kempton or Cheltenham. From what we saw. Best Mate has plenty of work to do in the six weeks before the King George and Roger Hoad, whose Lewes stable is now Jair Du Cochet’s regular hotel, is convinced that he won’t make it. “I think Jair Du Cochet is a much better horse this year,” said Roger. “He won three chases over here last season and was a bit unlucky at Cheltenham. I don’t think Best Mate will beat him at either track.”

Guillaume Macaire is more circumspect. “Best Mate is a champion,” said the trainer, who has made such an impact on British racing in the two and a half years since Jair Du Cochet was one of the first runners he had sent over here from his seaside base in south west France. “But this horse is very talented. He is only six-years-old and has now got his condition and his understanding of English fences into very good shape. I believe he is much better after his big rest in the summer. Whether he will beat Best Mate or not I do not know. That is the fascination of racing.”

The cryptic words of the man who had said beforehand “I’m okay if he finishes second to such a fantastic horse,” hung in the Huntingdon air. Best Mate’s road to Cheltenham has begun. It may not be an easy one.

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