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Paul Haigh: It's not winning, it's taking part that's vital for Mate.

Byline: Paul Haigh

Winning every time is a difficult trick to pull off. The English rugby team managed it even though they didn't play that well - although they might have beaten the Australians much more easily if they had not had to put up with refereeing of a standard that would have been embarrassing if it had come from a self-important maths master with a bad case of needle for one side in a schools match.

They did it though. Justice was finally done. Let joy be unconfined - even among those surly devotees of the sad game played with a round ball who don't understand rugby and are rather frightened by it, and so like to pretend it's beneath their dignity in a bid to protect their self- esteem.

Best Mate, on the other hand, did not manage to pull off the difficult trick.

You can go on as much as you like about how he wasn't quite wound up (although his trainer insisted beforehand that he was).

You can go on, too, about the trip being too short for him, and the effects of the mistake he made at what may in retrospect have been the decisive point of the race.

However, the fact is that, very good horse though he is, Best Mate wasn't quite good enough to win the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon on Saturday.

When it came down to it he actually lost ground on the run-in to Jair du Cochet, even though the French horse had made a hash of the last - blame for which will no doubt be laid directly at the door of the already extensively reviled Jacques Ricou.

Perhaps Best Mate will win another Gold Cup and so enable his hero worshippers to continue to press their claim that he deserves comparison with the greatest steeplechaser there's ever been.

The rest of us can continue to enjoy him for what he is: the best horse around at the moment

and one that no longer needs to be mollycoddled because now he has been beaten again and - guess what? - the roof has not yet fallen in.

His defeat is not a cause for mourning. It may even be one for celebration if it encourages his connections to test him a bit more thoroughly than he would have been if kept just to the Peterborough-King George-Gold Cup route.

If people really want him to be another Arkle, he has to be given the chance to take on some of the Herculean tasks that Arkle was set. If he fails, it will be no disgrace.

There was plenty to relish about Saturday's racing anyway - even if what was supposed to be the main event was a bit of a letdown.

Kingscliff, last year's champion hunter chaser, showed he is something right out of the ordinary himself by winning the Coral.co.uk Handicap Chase `as he pleased'.

This phrase is frequently used to describe a convincing victory. In this case it was the literal truth as his rider was almost a passenger for most of the three-mile trip.

Andrew Thornton who, for reasons that aren't quite clear to anyone yet, is riding superbly this season - far, far better than he's ridden before - and deserves huge praise for staying on board and completing the course.

When that rein broke I suppose it may have crossed his mind that it might be a good idea to pull up. Only a split second later it must have occurred to him that even if he chose to adopt this policy it might be just a touch difficult to achieve.

It was a great achievement anyway, both for the horse and the rider. Is Kingscliff going to be a challenger one day for Best Mate's title? Without a doubt. Is it a year too soon to talk about the possibility of his taking over from the champ? It's never too early for a horse who's full of himself and thinks he can beat anyone.

Lord Sam is another one who may one day be a contender. So may Bal de Nuit, who always seemed to be going better than the winner, but is going to need to work out how to jump.

Contenders come up all the time. If they didn't there'd be no glory in being a champion, would there?

Best Mate remains `the man', but unlike England's rugby team he could not maintain his supremacy even when just below his best.

Congratulations to all who backed Jonny Wilkinson for Sports Personality of the Year. A message, too, for those who think Best Mate should be Horse of the Year - no he shouldn't.

Surely he needs to follow a path of Falbrav-style enterprise if he wants that accolade.

Read Paul Haigh in the Racing Post Weekender
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Nov 24, 2003
Words:797
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