21 November 2004

Frost on the windscreen, winter sun on the hill, Christmas is coming to Devon, and Best Mate is back on the track. Welcome to the best of sporting theatre – or is this pantomime?

Certainly Friday’s return of Britain’s best-loved racehorse was a celebration. More than three times the usual 2,000 crowd had come to the Exeter course which spans the collar of Haldon Hill. The previous night their masters in the House of Commons had decreed that most of them would be classed as criminals come the spring. But for this afternoon hunting bans could be forgotten. Best Mate, the beau ideal of the “National Hunt” horse, was making his first start since that famous third Gold Cup triumph at Cheltenham in March. Since he runs just three times a season, it was not a day to miss.

The local fudge was selling well on the counter behind the grandstand but not as well as Henrietta Knight’s updated Best Mate biography inevitably entitled “Triple Gold.” Turning its pages you reflected on the horse’s unique position in current British life; a steeplechaser as an icon, the only animal a sizeable portion of the population could recognise.

But with recognition comes distortion. Best Mate is no longer just a four-legged athlete who must do the long hours of conditioning and then face the lung-stretching challenge of the race. He is `Matey’, a symbol of simple strength and beauty and courage which is seared into the national memory at Cheltenham each March. He is seen as kind and cuddly and honest, an evocation of a better world when horsepower was still king. Twenty years ago we had it with Desert Orchid when children in prams would stutter “Dessie, Dessie” when the grey strode through.

This sort of adulation works wonderfully well at parades and Charity open days like the golden gathering in West Lockinge in August when almost 10,000 worshippers met near the duck pond to pay tribute to `Matey’ and his fellow inmates at Henrietta Knight’s academy. But it suggests there is something easy about what happens after the starter pulls the lever, that the six minutes it will would take to cover the near-three miles and 17 fences on Friday could be achieved without serious effort and proper preparation. Cue Jackie Jenner.

Jackie rides Best Mate on the Berkshire Downs each morning and leads him round the paddock before races. She is sunny and purposeful, with a leathery handshake that tells of the long rein-tugging hours she and Best Mate have put in. “He has done a lot of work,” Jackie says, “unlike last year we have been able to use the grass all the time. He will be better for the run, but he is ready.”

Her training partner certainly looks it a couple of hours later when he struts magnificently up to the parade ring, his head high, his eyes and ears alert, a real spring in those gleaming quarters as he walks. Such compliments don’t really apply to owner Jim Lewis and his entourage clad as ever in the claret and blue scarves of his beloved Aston Villa and in a couple of cases actually encased in their training strip “I thought you were in your pyjamas,” tutted Henrietta.

The William Hill Chase has been specially devised to lure Best Mate to Exeter and only three opponents turn out against him. One of them, the lean if slightly sweaty Frenchman’s Creek, had not run since April 2002. Seebald’s main claim to fame these days is that he is the best horse ever owned by football stars Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler but he did run a good second, albeit at five lengths in receipt of 18lb, to top two-miler Azertyuiop, last time. Which leaves the massive backside of Sir Rembrandt, only half a length off Best Mate in the Gold Cup and now getting 4lb. With a run under his belt, he should be a contender.

“But you know Sir Rembrandt has never raced on a right-handed course like this,” says a voice on my shoulder. “Some horses seem to go only one way.” It is David Elsworth, who masterminded Desert Orchid through his 70-race, 34-victory career. “But look at that Best Mate,” he adds. “I wish he ran more often, but he’s the real deal all right.”

In the race Sir Rembrandt’s use as a sparring partner evaporates when he confuses the fence shadow on take off at the 8th and after that hangs alarmingly out to the left like a lorry with a puncture. Best Mate and stand-in jockey Timmy Murphy are left in front, jumping as impeccably as horses from Henrietta Knight’s Badminton past. The pace has not been fast and as they swing back towards home with three fences to jump, Seebald moves threateningly on the outside.

Seebald matched Best Mate at the second last and as the pair bear down on the final fence there was nothing in it. Reputations don’t count now, winning does. Murphy slaps the whip down Best Mate’s shoulder, re-threads his reins and gets a big three-stride impulsion over the obstacle. He lands just in front but Seebald keeps closing. As he comes past us his head and neck are stretched in honest answer to Murphy’s urging. But it is only a short-head at the line.

The fans clap eagerly as he is unsaddled. Henrietta Knight comes out of hiding, her face lit with relief, the dream of a fourth Gold Cup still intact. Jackie Jenner walks Best Mate off to the dope box and as the steam comes off him the ugly thought also rises that, strictly on form a short-head defeat of Seebald does not amount to very much. But the champion has made a winning start. Other, much tougher times, lie ahead.

For Timmy Murphy they come within the hour. A novice chaser called No Collusion jumps dangerously low before capsizing violently. It is some seconds before the jockey moves, some while before he finally comes out of the weighing room to give his verdict. He shifts his weight uncomfortably, his back has been wrenched, his hand aches from a blow across the knuckles, and there is a weariness about him as he says, “there was no point in being too serious today. It’s a long season.”

For Timmy Murphy and for all who flocked to Exeter, the memory of Best Mate may be needed to get us through.

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