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Thursday, March 13
Best Mate cruises at Cheltenham

Best Mate was everybody's friend at Cheltenham Thursday as he cruised to a 10-length victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Jim Culloty moved the 13-8 favorite within striking position approaching the fourth last fence as first Behrajan and then stablemate Chives cut out the lead. Best Mate sailed past Chives entering the home straight with just two fences to jump in the 3 5/16-mile steeplechase at which point he went clear as he pleased. Crossing the line to a tumultuous roar from the crowd, Best Mate had ten lengths on the 33-1 runner-up Truckers Tavern with the 40-1 Harbour Pilot another 2-1/2 lengths back in third. Behrajan faded to fifth with Chives seventh as 1999 winner See More Business finished eighth. The winning time on good ground was 6:39.

This was a history making performance for the Henrietta Knight-trained, Jim Lewis-owned gelding as he became the first horse to win consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups since the legendary L'Escargot turned the trick in 1970-71.

Best Mate's most dangerous rival, the Irish novice chaser Beef Or Salmon, exited the race when he took a nasty spill at the third of 22 fences. It turned into an academic exercise after that as victorious 8-year-old son of Un Desperado established himself as perhaps the best British chaser of the last quarter century.

He may also be the most popular jumper seen in England since Desert Orchid, the gray gelding who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989. Owner Lewis received the Gold Cup trophy from Queen Elizabeth, who was making her first appearance at Cheltenham since 1951 when she was merely Princess Elizabeth.

"I've got a heart here going so fast it could beat eggs," Lewis said in the winners' circle. "The public loves Best Mate and they love Henrietta. She's a weaver of dreams."

Lewis pocketed $325,896 for the victory, but is he dreaming of asking Best Mate to duplicate L'Escargot's unprecedented feat when in 1975, four years after his second Gold Cup triumph, he became the only horse in history to win both the Gold Cup and the Grand National?

Probably not. Best Mate is not entered in this year's Grand National and may not run again this season . But he is surely dreaming of matching the mark of the great Arkle, the last horse to win three straight Gold Cups in 1964-66.

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