24 November 2002

Brough Scott sees the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner make a triumphant return to action at Huntingdon

If you have got it, flaunt it. What can be objectionably exhibitionist in a human can be a winning ticket in a horse. Nothing in racing flaunts it like Best Mate.

He was back in action at Huntingdon yesterday and after last week’s newspaper-antagonising nonsense by the British Horseracing Board, it was not a moment too soon. The fact that he started at odds on and beat the French horse Douze Douze by eight lengths might suggest that this was a mere warm-up formality. With a star like Best Mate and 16 fences to be crossed, it was always going to be much better than that.

These are treasured sightings. Yesterday was the opening of his fourth British season, which is likely to have four more public appearances at best. His next target will be the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day and it would be no surprise if he didn’t appear again before defending his Gold Cup crown at Cheltenham in March. Few jumpers can boast such continued, improving excellence, but a record of nine wins and five seconds from just 14 races reminds us to store up the memories while we can.

Most of all take pleasure merely in the sight of him. Watching Best Mate tow the faithful Jackie Jenner round the paddock was to see the absolute beau ideal of the jumping horse. He had his ears pricked, his head high, his neck proud, his pace more of an arrogant strut than a pre-race stride. He was bold but not bullish, big but not blundering, balanced but with power in every limb.

But would he run fast enough? The tall chesnut Douze Douze had been one of France’s top horses two years ago and had been impressive in his comeback while the Nicky Henderson-trained Geos’s Tote Gold Trophy-winning hurdling form would give him a superior finishing kick if he could translate that talent to fences. Best Mate’s Cheltenham Gold Cup triumph was over three and a quarter miles; yesterday’s reappearance was a mere two and a half. It had been thought that Douze Douze might make the running but when he steadied at the start, Jim Culloty immediately did what he had to do. He sent Best Mate off ahead.

These type of races are a steady, not an instant rush of adrenalin. With 16 fences, almost two circuits and a full five minutes to run, there is time to absorb the very essence of how each horse travels. Best Mate moved cocky and ears pricked up front with Jim Culloty standing high in the irons behind his neck, his maroon and white stripes matching the Aston Villa scarf round owner Jim Lewis’s neck. The neat-jumping Geos kept him company, a competent professional despite his chasing inexperience, running easily at his side. Douze Douze stalked them, jumping accurately, but he is so tall you wondered how he and his diminutive looking jockey Jacques Ricou would handle things when the fences came quick.

The answer came at the seventh. Getting too close, Douze Douze clouted the fence hard, shooting his own long white-nosebanded head out for balance while our Jacques shot his right arm and whip out wildly to keep himself in the plate. It is easy to get facetiously xenophobic about French jockeys but as Jacques Ricou repeated this bizarre whip waving balancing act at the ninth, 10th and 13th fences it was not wholly silly to wonder what the French translations were for “calling a cab” and “pea on a drum”.

Notwithstanding these blunders, Douze Douze and Ricou began to close up the inside as Best Mate and Geos hustled on round the final turn and when they straightened up to face the last two fences the favourite found he had a rival attacking on either side. Best Mate was being asked for the maximum. At the fence, Culloty went for the long stride but Best Mate ignored him, belted the birch hard and for a milli-second disaster beckoned.

Somehow he kept his feet but Culloty’s whip was up, Douze Douze was to his right, the race was on. There is a punch-in-the-air joy in the sight of a champion asserting himself. Best Mate asserted now. He pricked his ears as Culloty asked him, reached out and over the fence in one soaring, match-winning leap. Behind him Douze Douze couldn’t take it. He crashed clumsily through right-handed and Jacques Ricou’s whip did one last flailing conductor’s balancing act to the sky.

It had been much more than an exhibition bout, but afterwards Best Mate looked ready to fight it all over again. When all the kissing and scrimmaging of the unsaddling enclosure was over, Jackie Jenner led her seven-year-old wonder away to the dope box with a smile almost as visible as the steam lifting off his sweat-soaked back. “He’s such a show off,” she said, “he’s a star now and he knows it.”

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