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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 19:41 GMT
Mate raises racing spirits
By Sophie Brown
BBC Sport at Cheltenham

Jim Culloty and Best Mate
Jim Culloty and Best Mate head for home up Cheltenham's famous hill
He is a bay gelding rather than a white charger but Best Mate formed the cavalry that arrived to restore racing's spirits at Cheltenham on Thursday.

Just a fortnight after the sport made front-page headlines with tabloid accusations of race-fixing and betting scams, the nine-year-old ensured a heart-warming racing triumph will be featured prominently in Friday's papers.

Roared home by what seemed like everyone in the 60,000-strong crowd, Best Mate outstayed his rivals to win his third consecutive Gold Cup.

The rain, which began to lash down as he crossed the winning line, could not dampen the enthusiastic reception given to the horse as he came into Cheltenham's famous winner's enclosure.

Best Mate had been one of the four reigning champions who had come back to contest the four major races of the Cheltenham Festival.

All were hot favourites to retain their crowns but one by one the first three - Rooster Booster, Moscow Flyer and Baracouda - were forced to abdicate.

This has been a real ordeal but we saw another side of Best Mate today
Best Mate's trainer Henrietta Knight

Even Baracouda, considered by many to be a bigger banker than Best Mate, had to settle for second in the Stayers' Hurdle in the race before the Gold Cup.

That put the pressure firmly on Best Mate's shoulders with the tension in the crowd palpable as the horses cantered down to the start.

But under a supremely confident ride from Culloty, the champion popped over the 22 fences as if it was a schooling session and then had to dig deep to see off the challenge of Sir Rembrandt by half a length.

After last year's 10-length victory, things were much closer this time around and trainer Henrietta Knight admitted her nerves had been tested to the full.

"This has been a real ordeal and I honestly thought we would be beaten at the last but we saw another side of Best Mate today," she said.

"We knew he had bags of class and all the ability in the world but we saw up that famous hill today that he also has plenty of class."

Jim Culloty and Henrietta Knight celebrate the victory
Jim Culloty and Henrietta Knight savour that winning feeling

"I have just walked into paradise," said jubilant owner Jim Lewis.

"I don't care if I never see another winner in my entire life because everybody wanted him to win."

Lewis, who like trainer Knight, is very superstitious, admitted that having left his "lucky" overcoat at home this morning, he had arranged to have it collected by a neighbour - it arrived with 20 minutes to spare.

Also showing immaculate timing, Best Mate won his third Gold Cup to become just the fourth member of an elite club and in doing so created a moment of horse racing history that all who witnessed it will never forget.

Perhaps more importantly, he gave horse racing a new hero - and for a sport going through a particularly bleak period, it could not have come at a more welcome time.

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