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Cheltenham Icons: A look at Best Mate's career

The Cheltenham Festival has fewer icons bigger than Best Mate. The three-time Gold Cup winner was taken from racing too soon, but his memory will live forever with the famous Cotswolds course opening the 'Best Mate' enclosure in his name.

There have been plenty of dominant horses over the years, but it's not every day you come across a horse who can make the Cheltenham Gold Cup their own - that's what made Best Mate so special.

Henrietta Knight's superstar won the race three years in a row between 2002 and 2004, matching the record of Arkle, but couldn't quite extend the record when withdrawing from the 2005 iteration of the race just eight days prior due to a burst blood vessel. 

In Best Mate's 22-race career, he won 14 times and came second on seven occasions. Here, we look back at the legendary life and career of one of racing's greatest.

Setting the tone early 

Some of the great horses can take some time to assert dominance or get into the habit of winning; Moscow Flyer lost four straight bumpers before registering a win, Istabraq couldn't even get within two lengths of a winner until his fifth start and Big Buck's first success came on his tenth start. 

It didn't quite take so long for Best Mate, though. 

Henrietta Knight's star got off to winning ways in a Cheltenham bumper in the winter of 1999, before backing it up a few weeks later with an impressive 10-length victory on his hurdle debut at Sandown.

These wins were followed by two second place finishes, the first back at Sandown and the next at the Cheltenham Festival's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but the performances still showed that Best Mate could mix with the best. 

It wasn't long before he was back to winning ways, going to Aintree to win the Martell Mersey Novices' Hurdle, ensuring he ended his debut season as a winner. 

Impressing over fences 

After a very impressive season as a novice hurdler, Best Mate was sent straight over the larger obstacles. 

He didn't disappoint. 

His chase debut went about as well as could be expected, his jumping was sound, he travelled well and ultimately won without any real fuss against a field of opponents nowhere near as classy as him.

His next two races were even more impressive; first, he took part in the Grade 2 November Novices' Chase at Cheltenham and demolished the field, winning by 18 lengths, he then took another step up in both grade and distance, this time finishing 13 lengths ahead of the field in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown.

He unfortunately missed Cheltenham that year due to the foot and mouth outbreak and his final race of the season was at Aintree, where he returned to hurdles to finish a tailed off second in the Martell Aintree Hurdle. 

It was clear that Best Mate was a horse that should be going over fences. 

Giving handicaps a go

On his return to action, Best Mate was sent handicapping in order to earn a mark high enough for him to qualify for the Cheltenham Gold Cup - the most prestigious race in the calendar that only the very best can enter. 

His first taste of handicaps was in the Haldon Gold Cup Chase Limited Handicap at Exeter, where he took advantage of a clearly lenient mark to finish 20 lengths clear of the rest of the field.

The handicapper wasn't going to be so lenient next time, and Best Mate's mark was hiked right up for his second crack at handicapping, this time in the First National Gold Cup at Ascot. 

Despite finishing second, Best Mate put in an exceptional performance which really showed his class and confirmed his credentials as a top-level chaser. 

He had to concede a whole 20 lbs to the winner Wahiba Sands but still managed to finish within just half a length. 

He had proven that he could carry a mark big enough for the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup era 

Best Mate's love affair with the Cheltenham Gold Cup started at the 2002 feature of the Cotswold spectacle. 

He came into the race with a relative lack of experience, having only had six starts over fences, but the potential that he held was clear for all to see and he more than lived up to it, travelling strongly throughout the race to register a fine victory.

The following season he went one better by completing the King George VI and Gold Cup double, further cementing his claims as one of the most talented chasers the sport had seen. 

In the famous Boxing Day race at Kempton, Best Mate showed his class as well as his resilience by travelling strongly throughout the race and jumping immaculately before holding on and finding extra on the run in to get home in front. 

In his second Gold Cup, the well-fancied Best Mate delivered the goods in devastating fashion, cantering throughout the race as his opponents started to drop out one-by-one before flying up the hill to win by ten lengths - a truly iconic performance.

In a bid to match the legendary Arkle in winning three consecutive Gold Cups, Best Mate took a slightly different approach to the following season. 

Henrietta Knight's superstar skipped another trip to the King George VI and instead took part in the Ericcson Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting, which he won with relative ease. 

Best Mate went into his third Gold Cup as an odds on favourite, something that is virtually unheard of in what is such a prestigious race - horses don't know what price they are though, and this was to be his toughest of the three. 

A ferocious gallop was set from the very beginning by First Gold, as the race turned into a real test of pace and stamina. Best Mate travelled strongly throughout but, in a race that featured horses that were no strangers to staying up to four miles, doubts started to creep in on his ability to keep up the whole way and up the hill. 

Even more doubts started to creep in when he met trouble in running just before the penultimate fence and was trapped between rivals, but an incredible jump over that fence that gained him enough distance to get in front was enough to release a roar across Prestbury Park - the crowd knew what was coming. 

The Cheltenham hero held on strongly up the hill and crossed the line to a huge reception, he had matched the legendary Arkle in winning three consecutive Gold Cups. as well as being the first horse to win multiple Gold Cups since L'Escargot in 1970 and 1971.

Best Mate had etched his name into the history books.

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