MATE MAY HAVE MET HIS MATCH

28 December 2003

Brough Scott on why Beef Or Salmon will ensure the Gold Cup winner will need every ounce of his class today

The challenger is ready for the champion. This Ericsson Chase sees Beef Or Salmon on home soil and in the best form of his life. Any idea that Best Mate was taking the easy option by swerving Kempton for an away match at Leopardstown will be forgotten when Beef Or Salmon joins him as this race comes up to the boil.

It was last year’s Chase which confirmed the power-crested chesnut seven-year-old as a top-flight performer. Still a mere novice over fences with just three runs under his belt, he was hunted carefully behind the leaders by Timmy Murphy and then moved up off the final turn to knife through the floundering leaders. It was every bit as soft as it will be today, but here was a horse of class.

And now of experience. The bold move of running a horse still as callow over the bigger obstacles as Beef Or Salmon in last year’s Gold Cup was brutally exposed when he took a real tail-breaker of a fall at the third fence. As Best Mate stormed home to the immortality of his second Gold Cup, Beef Or Salmon was just an empty saddle being walked back in disgrace. A season on and the challenger has now boxed enough rounds for Murphy to know he has got an accomplished pro beneath him.

Indeed, Beef Or Salmon has been noticeably more active than Best Mate. Admittedly, the unorthodox Michael Hourigan gave him his first Gold Cup race in a one mile flat affair at The Curragh in April under Irish champion Michael Kinane, who was so impressed by the winning experience that he threatened to take out a jumping licence to challenge Murphy’s tenure of the reins. But this autumn, Beef Or Salmon has already run three times, twice over 2½ miles and last time down at the minimum two miles – and he was successful just the same.

A bad blunder at the last got him beat first time, but finishing just a length behind Edredon Bleu does not look too bad in view of the latter’s King George heroics and a defeat of King George runner-up Tiutchev next time out confirmed Beef Or Salmon’s progress, as did his most recent victory over two miles at Cork. In all, Beef Or Salmon has run 11 times in the last two seasons. Champion Best Mate has been in the ring on just four occasions.

“Of course, I don’t know if he can beat Best Mate,” said Hourigan, from his Limerick base yesterday morning. “But running over two miles has been very good for his jumping. He handles everything very well now and he is going to get there very fit. The ground could be pretty soft. Best Mate may have quite a tough time.”

Hourigan is one of those instinctive horsemen whom you discount at your peril. A visit to the self-developed and multi-faceted operation he has built up at Lisalee is a tribute to ability to spot promise in still gawky-looking youngsters and to know how to develop them into winning condition. He has come a long way and a lot of horses since the early days when the only gallop he could get was round a local graveyard. Dorans Pride took him to Cheltenham Festival triumph. But Beef Or Salmon could take him to the Gold Cup success that Dorans Pride pitched at four times and failed.

That is if he can battle Best Mate out of it today. For with only the one unsatisfactory run at Huntingdon under his belt, the champion is unlikely to be quite in the title-defending condition he will be in when he comes out for the Gold Cup in March. Cheltenham may still be Best Mate’s kingdom but this afternoon, with conditions likely to be every bit as testing as the Huntingdon surface his trainer complained about in November, the champion may find his crown under threat.

Beef Or Salmon has a strange mangy-looking apology of a tail for one of such otherwise magnificent physique. “It’s always been like that,” says Hourigan with his splendid Limerick logic, “but he is in the form of his life. He can now be ridden any way we like.” Looks like a title fight worthy of the name.

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