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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 April, 2004, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Mate answers racing's call
By Sophie Brown

It had many highlights but the 2003-2004 jumps season will be remembered as the one in which Best Mate confirmed his status as a modern racing legend.

His hat-trick of Cheltenham Gold Cups was the first since that of the legendary Arkle, who had begun his treble exactly 40 years previously.

THE BIG RACES
Jim Culloty celebrates Best Mate's third Cheltenham Gold Cup win

Best Mate's two previous successes had shown his class and style but the third revealed his courage.

Boxed in on the final corner by his rivals, he had to pull out all the stops up Cheltenham's notoriously unforgiving hill to ensure that he was first past the post.

His achievement, enthusiastically greeted by the 60,000 present at the course, was all the more welcome as it gave racing respite from race-fixing allegations, which had dominated newspapers for the previous fortnight.

Chief concern for the jumping world was the incident in which rider Sean Fox was found guilty by stewards of stepping off his horse in a race at Fontwell.

The Jockey Club is still investigating after being alerted to irregular betting patterns on the race.

But Best Mate's win restored some of racing's integrity with the outside world.

Another emotional moment of the last three-day Festival came with the surprise Champion Hurdle victory of Hardy Eustace.

The 33-1 shot had also won at the 2003 Festival, when he was ridden by Kieran Kelly, who was tragically killed in a fall at Kilbeggan over the summer.

Any worries that Aintree, coming just two weeks after the Festival, might be something of a damp squib, were dispelled thanks to two famous Grand National triumphs.

First, Carrie Ford, riding Forest Gunner, won the "amateur's National" just 10 weeks after giving birth.

CHAMPIONS OF 2003-2004
Tony McCoy broke his cheekbone in three places in February
Jockey: Tony McCoy
(209 winners)
Trainer: Martin Pipe
(175 wins - 2.4m prize money )
Owner: David Johnson
(48 wins - 918,315 prize money)
Conditional: Jamie Moore
(48 winners)

Then Amberleigh House's late burst resulted in a fourth victory in the race for 73-year-old Ginger McCain, who was responsible for Red Rum's historic hat-trick almost 30 years ago.

At 12 years old, Amberleigh House is no spring chicken himself and his success was just one of a series of victories for old-timers this season.

Edredon Bleu, who runs in the same colours as Best Mate, proved a splendid substitute for his stablemate by winning the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.

Meanwhile, Marlborough won the Racing Post Chase and Florida Pearl took the Irish Hennessy for a record fourth time.

The oldest of the lot was 13-year-old Earthmover, who won his second Foxhunters' at Cheltenham six years after his first victory.

At 29, Tony McCoy is hardly old but to other jockeys it must sometimes feel like he has been around forever.

This was the year the Northern Irishman notched up his ninth consecutive jockeys' title.

This came despite him missing eight weeks of the season with a broken arm (a cheekbone broken in three places incredibly required just nine days off).

It was a similar story in the trainers' race.

Martin Pipe captured his 14th title, although this time he was pushed all the way by Paul Nicholls.

Nicky Henderson proved the trainer to follow in the big handicaps, winning seven.

Yet the Lambourn trainer, who usually thrives at Cheltenham, drew a Festival blank.

GOLDEN GRAHAMS
Graham Lee: A good season for the northern-based jockey who did the rare Grand National-Scottish National double on Amberleigh House and Grey Abbey
Graham Wylie: The Geordie billionaire's new hobby of collecting jumping horses turned into a passion - his spending now tops 4m

Racing's rollercoaster was also ridden by jockey Ruby Walsh, whose leading jockey award at Cheltenham was followed by a broken wrist incurred the day before the Grand National.

And Jair Du Cochet, conqueror of Best Mate earlier in the season and an impressive winner of the Pillar Chase, had to be put down after breaking a leg on the gallops.

Mary Reveley, one of the most successful ever female trainers, handed over the reins at her Saltburn yard to her son after 22 years.

Grand National-winning trainer Nick Gaselee also retired from training.

And there were universal tributes for one of racing's all-time greats, Fred Winter, the four-time champion jockey and eight-time champion trainer who died at the age of 77.




NATIONAL HUNT 2003-04

SEASON REVIEW

MAJOR CHASES
 

MAJOR HURDLE RACES
 

JOCKEYS PROFILED
LEADING JOCKEY PROFILES
 

TRAINERS PROFILED
 

RACING EXPLAINED



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