12 November 2000

Best Mate, long odds-on favourite at Cheltenham today, takes another step towards the Arkle Trophy in March

A horse for Cheltenham. Best Mate runs today. He was second there last March at the Festival. He has collected in all but one of his other races. He may not make it. The statistics, as well as the dangers, are uncompromisingly brutal. But at five he is the type of lithe, young steeplechaser who could be anything. He is 16.2 hands (5ft 6in) at the shoulder, 1,200lbs of dark bay muscle, proud of eye, deep of lung, and quick of feet. He is `The Dream’.

There is nothing in the whole world of equine or human athletics that measures up to what his sort can do. To gallop and jump round two miles and 12 four-and-a-half foot fences in under four minutes carrying up to 12st of man and saddle. Done well it requires a mixture of power and courage, speed and agility which makes the spirit soar. Best Mate was soaring last week. And that was just practice.

Stable companion Catfish Keith led him up the five-fence examination in trainer Henrietta Knight’s remarkably well-drained schooling paddock near Wantage. As Best Mate passed us, ears cocked, head bold, neck set, back arching, you could see the power surging through to jockey Jim Cullotty’s hands on the rein. As he put in a huge long leap at the final open ditch, that power exploded into two squealing great bucks of sheer well-being. “**** me, that horse is fresh,” said the voice beside us.

It is a voice as redolent of authority as it is of rustic grammar-shattering earthiness. It is a voice which once roared with laughing, big-hearted challenge as it stormed horses fence-wards and three times took the champion’s crown. It is a voice which 10 years ago had, through misfortune, drink, and unhappiness, got right to the very edge of the everlasting bonfire. It is a voice which has now found a triumphant and entirely uncensored renewal in its loving partnership with Henrietta, whose fastidious, former schoolmistress tones are the ultimate contrast to his own. Terry Biddlecombe is 60 in February. He is, in every sense, reliving `The Dream’

He was the Prince Hal of our generation. A tall, strong farmer’s boy from Gloucester with an appetite and a half for everything on offer. It made him an unmatched `Blonde Bomber’ in the saddle, but eventually it broke him in body, then in mind. But the demons are long buried, even if enough physical frailty remains for an automatic blood-pressure device on his arm to have been triggered into a strange inflating tourniquet as we had driven across the Downs that morning. “Just watch him,” he says, as Cullotty turns Best Mate in for a final run over two bigger fences, “this is just ****ing poetry in motion.”

Catfish Keith is ridden by Terry’s 18-year-old son, Robert, of whom his father is inordinately proud, albeit not enough to take his eyes off the four-legged star which followed. At the first fence Best Mate’s stride takes him close in to the obstacle. The ignorant or incapable jumper would plough forwards with birch-busting risk. With a flick of the forelegs Best Mate is over clean.

“What I look for,” he continues, suddenly and necessarily serious, “is the way a horse presents himself, the way he walks, his mental attitude, his balance, his action of racing. This horse is bold but intelligent. All a jockey has to do,” he adds as Cullotty looks across at his mentor, “is to get hold of his head and not fire him. He will come up on a long stride but he is very clever with his feet. Just negotiate the two open ditches at Cheltenham and keep him balanced down the hill.”

It was not at Cheltenham that Terry first saw Best Mate but at the boggy and higgledy-piggledy Irish delights of the West Waterford point-to-point, at Lisnaree, in Feb 1999. For the last four years Terry and Henrietta have spent almost every Sunday in the West of Ireland scouting so successfully for young talent that they now have nothing over nine years old in their 70-horse string. They are the Leeds United of the training teams. With Edredon Bleu and Lord Noelie last March, they have already taken trophies in the Cup final atmosphere of the National Hunt Festival. With Best Mate, set this year for the Arkle Trophy, they could go higher yet. “He could win the Gold Cup in two years,” says Terry.

“We were over looking at another horse,” he remembers, “but I saw him in the paddock and was knocked out by him. It was his first run, the ground was dreadful and they pulled him up before the third last. But the way he galloped and jumped. I went to Hen and said `this is the one we have got to have’.”

But investors are needed. Step forward Jim Lewis, 66, a silver-haired retired furniture dealer from Birmingham, who 50 years ago stood on the hill looking down on the now defunct Bromford Bridge racecourse holding the hand of his future wife, Valerie, and said: “One day I will give you three things. A house, a Jaguar car and a racehorse.”

The first house, a £2,500 bungalow, came four years later. The Jag had to wait a little longer and if the foray into racehorse ownership did not start until 15 years ago it has, with Cheltenham victories for Nakir and current two-mile champion, Edredon Bleu, been successful enough for Lewis to term himself `Lucky Jim’.

So, after Best Mate duly hacked up in his next point-to-point, it was to Lewis that Henrietta despatched a fax which read: “I have seen the horse of my dreams. He is so good I would train him for nothing.” A trip to Tom Costello’s astonishing young horse academy in Limerick clinched the deal and if the “no fees” promise seems to have been forgotten, the fact that Lewis was happy to fork out £150,000 for a French horse called Impex in September suggests that the wolf has not yet vaulted the Lewis’s smart new gate. In Best Mate, he has the promise of what we are always longing for.

Weather-battered Cheltenham was reached just one week after Kalanisi and Giant’s Causeway’s heroics at the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky. But for all their splendour, those two colts are in actual racing sense no more than one-season wonders. Both have now retired to the harem life at stud where reputations are taken from what their offspring do. But Best Mate and his rivals bring something else. The challenge of a string of winters where the fences beckon yet to daring. And `The Dream’ lives on.

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