This three-time Gold Cup winner became the “people’s champion”, earning himself comparisons with the mighty Arkle. Hannah Lemieux delves deeper into his success
Best Mate’s origins
Died as a 10yo, bay thoroughbred gelding
Trainer: Henrietta Knight
Owner: Jim Lewis
Breeder: Jacques van’t Hart
Jockey: Jim Culloty
Best results: won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2002, 2003, 2004; the King George VI Chase in 2002; the 2001 Haldon Gold Cup; the 2002 Peterborough Chase; won 14 races from 22 starts and finished second seven times; total career earnings of £1,022,436.
Best Mate established a level of pre-eminence in racing that even 15 years after he left us, still remains untouchable. He delivered every time his hooves touched a racecourse. His form is something to be marvelled at – from 22 starts under Rules, he finished in the top two every race bar one, and never fell.
It was his longevity as a National Hunt superstar that meant people yearned to see him in the flesh, flocking to the likes of Cheltenham to watch him. He became the first horse since Arkle to win three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups, in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Best Mate’s story began across the Irish Sea, when his breeder Jacques van’t Hart purchased Flat mare Katday for 1,250 Irish guineas. It was the start of a road to three-time Gold Cup glory for the breeder and the creation of a National Hunt icon.
Katday was put to stallion Un Desperado and on 28 January 1995, a bay colt was born near Trim in Co Meath. He was sold as a foal at the Tattersalls (Ireland) November Sale at Fairyhouse in 1996. The renowned late bloodstock agent and horse dealer Tom Costello snapped up the foal for 2,500gns.
It was one of Costello’s then young sons who played a part in choosing the very apt name “Best Mate”. Having been nurtured at the Costello yard, Best Mate made his debut in a point-to-point at Lismore in February 1999 and it was here that trainer Henrietta Knight and her late husband, Terry Biddlecombe, first saw “Matey” during a visit to Ireland.
“We liked Best Mate in the paddock beforehand and Terry, in particular, had really taken to him,” recalls Knight. “When Best Mate pulled up in that race, Terry said, ‘We should buy that horse.’ However, Tom wouldn’t sell until he’d won, so we waited.”
The couple returned to watch Best Mate win a two-runner race. This time their offer was accepted and they purchased him for owner Jim Lewis.
“Best Mate was always a top-class, natural jumper,” says Knight. “I never worried in a race that he would fall – he just never got it wrong – and he was always straightforward to train.”
Jim Culloty partnered Best Mate in all but four of his races. “I first sat on Best Mate at Hen’s yard,” remembers Culloty. “He was a goofy four-year-old with big ears, but had a lovely way of going from the start – he was a nice, pliable horse.”
Best Mate made his debut under Rules at the very place that would become synonymous with his name – a bumper at Cheltenham in 1999, which he duly won.
“Jim had a great relationship with Matey,” adds Knight. “They just seemed to trust each other and Jim always sat quiet on him during a race.”
With every run, Best Mate kept on improving. He found his way under the skin of racing fans and never let the punters down, finishing second if he didn’t win.
‘He was a showman’
“You just couldn’t fault him on conformation,” explains Knight. “He was everything I look for in a horse and set the precedent for me in terms of what I search for. Everyone always said he was stereotypical of my type of horse. He walked well and he was a showman – he could have excelled in any discipline from eventing to dressage and showing.”
Known to be a weaver in his stable, Best Mate was turned out each day with Edredon Bleu, who also raced in Jim Lewis’s blue and maroon striped silks – inspired by the owner’s favourite football club, Aston Villa.
“I’m a big believer in turning horses out come rain or shine,” says Knight. “Best Mate was always in charge and bossed Edredon Bleu around. If he’d been a child at school, he would have been the cheeky, arrogant child in class.”
There was one thing Best Mate did not like, however, and that was soft ground.
“I’m not sure he would have won three consecutive Gold Cups if the ground had been on the soft side,” muses Knight. “In that ground, he couldn’t show off his full ability and he didn’t like having to pull his feet out of mud.
Luckily for Best Mate and all concerned, the ground was officially “good” on all three of his Gold Cup glory days. Perhaps some things are just meant to be.
“Best Mate was unbeatable, unless in soft ground, and even then he finished second,” adds Culloty. “He was the most beautifully balanced horse to ride. When the ground suited him, he could stand off a fence from outside of the wings, but in the wrong ground you could just tell he hated it.
“I would get him into a rhythm and let him lob away during a race, he had such a high cruising speed. He’d come alive at the races and I always knew I was riding the best horse.”
Knight admits the first Gold Cup victory in 2002 was a surprise but that “Terry always had confidence in him”. By the time the National Hunt specialist lined up for his third consecutive Gold Cup, he had a legion of fans gunning for him.
“Back then, emails and mobiles weren’t such a thing, so we used to get piles of letters and cards for him sent by fans,” remembers Knight. “We would have people turning up at the yard wanting to see him in his stable, and we held an open day especially for him, so many fans packed in to see him – he was so popular.”
With his rise in popularity came a media storm and increased pressure for all his connections. His final Gold Cup was undoubtedly his most dramatic, and many will remember the emotional embrace between Knight and Biddlecombe in the aftermath.
During the race, Best Mate and Culloty got boxed in by rivals on the inside rail. A wave of panic trembled among spectators and could be heard in the TV commentator’s voice. However, a superb jump at the second last earned him the lead and he battled up the famous Cheltenham hill in front.
“Winning on a horse of Best Mate’s calibre, you just feel relieved crossing the line that you haven’t gone and messed it up,” says Culloty.
And it wasn’t just Cheltenham where Best Mate raced into the history books – he also claimed the stakes in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day in 2002, under champion jockey AP McCoy.
‘The people’s champion’
In his impeccable form under Rules stretching from 1999 until 2005, the only “PU” which glares off the page is his last race on 1 November 2005 at Exeter – the day we said goodbye to “Matey”. Having been pulled up by jockey Paul Carberry, he collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack, aged 10.
In her book entitled Not Enough Time: My Life With Terry Biddlecombe, Knight says of the moment she lost her stable star: “The end was quick. Best Mate would have felt no pain. It was as though he was in a coma. He took his last breath and lay motionless. There was no struggle. His death was extremely peaceful.”
Jim Lewis had hoped Best Mate could be buried at Exeter; however, certain regulations prevented this, so his ashes were buried beside the winning post at Cheltenham a month after he died.
“Best Mate became the people’s champion,” said Lewis at the time. “They loved him and he loved them – he will be at rest at the scene of his greatest triumphs.” Best Mate undoubtedly changed the lives of those closest to him.
“He put my name on the map, he did so much for my training career and my life thereafter,” reflects Knight. “I was so very lucky to have two champions in my life – Terry and Best Mate.
“I have always lived for horses, but sometimes you need something to help you along and for me that was Best Mate. Horses like him don’t come by very often.”
Culloty describes his success on him as “career-defining”.
“If people remember me as a jockey, it’s because of Best Mate,” he says. “He deserved a long, happy retirement and it’s devastating that never happened. It’s almost ironic that such a healthy horse with such a big heart died of a heart attack.”
Best Mate is immortalised in two bronze statues, one in the village where he was trained and another at Cheltenham Racecourse. He may be gone, but the legacy of Best Mate lives on in the heart of every racing fan who was lucky enough to witness him grace a racecourse. He really was the people’s horse.
‘What Best Mate taught me’
“Training Best Mate, I learnt a lot about the importance of patience,” says Henrietta Knight. “When you know you have a talented horse on your hands, it is vital not to hurry it.
“Many of the racehorses who come to my yard for help with their jumping haven’t been given the time to develop and have been produced too quickly, so we take them back to basics.”
‘Watch this horse’
“Before Best Mate’s debut under Rules, I was actually buying a jacket from a stall at Stratford races and I was haggling over the price with the guy selling me the jacket,” remembers Jim Culloty.
“In the end, he said, ‘If you can give me a horse to watch this season, I will give you the jacket.’ So I replied, ‘A horse called Best Mate in the bumper at Cheltenham next week.’ We won and I got my free jacket!”
AP McCoy on Best Mate
“He’s the model racehorse. The best chaser I’ve ever ridden, simply the best around at the moment. I’d marry him if I had the chance,” said McCoy after winning the King George.
“He won’t have to improve to win a second Gold Cup. If he does improve, I think I’ll have to kidnap Jim Culloty.”
Horse & Hound, 3 January 2003
From the archive
Tim Richards reports from the 2004 Gold Cup…
“In addition to his quick, economical jumping and effortless gallop, Best Mate showed another element – that of the mean street fighter to get himself out of a corner after being boxed in by Paul Carberry on Harbour Pilot from four fences out.
“His thousands of fans had their hearts in their mouths when there appeared to be nowhere to go with first Harbour Pilot and then Sir Rembrandt keeping him in check against the rails. But Best Mate is no softy and he dug deep for Jim Culloty after being switched between horses. Once the second last was in range, he winged it.”
Horse & Hound, 25 March 2004
First published in Horse & Hound; 5 November 2020
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