Anne Holland, Best Mate: The Illustrated Story of the Nation’s Favourite Horse (Orion, 2004)
We don’t have much in America in the way of hunt racing, and it certainly doesn’t get the kind of press that Thoroughbred racing does, or even Standardbred (harness) racing. It’s one of those sports like cricket that we seem to have never found much of a user for, while much of the rest of the world is mad over it. As a newly-minted cricket fan who’s never had much of a use for most of the American breed of spectator sports, I have to say I generally side with the rest of the world on issues of sport (though for the life of me I still can’t understand the appeal of soccer/football). I’ve never been to a live hunt racing meet, though it’s on my bucket list; you can do that sort of thing here in America in a number of east coast destinations, or you can head overseas, where there are still such things as hunt racing superstars. One of the most famous of the bunch in modern times was Best Mate, whose exploits during the early part of this century, including winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup an astonishing three times, quickly became the stuff of legend.
Best Mate (and stablemate Edredon Bleu, who also gets a good number of column inches in the book, as often he was Best Mate’s most troublesome rival on the course)seems to have been almost predestined for stardom. He was a horse who basically came out of nowhere, a modestly-bred Irish horse who defined the affable underdog. He came under the care of Henrietta Knight, a much-loved and much-lovely trainer, now retired, who had very strong opinions on how to train racehorses that tended to fly in the face of British tradition. (Did they work? Best Mate was the first three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup since the legendary Arkle. You tell me.) But Knight is the kind of person who simply states her opinion and then lets it go; no temper tantrums, no snarky digs at other trainers, (no American Thoroughbred trainer behavior. Not that I’m thinking of anyone in particular…) etc. Then Knight paired the horse with young jockey Jimmy Culloty, and magic happened. They ran… and they won. Well, they didn’t always win, but Best Mate never, in his career, finished worse than second in a race. He suffered no DNFs; never fell clearing a hurdle. Ever. That’s an amazing achievement in and of itself. (Culloty would retire from riding soon after Best Mate’s death; he’s now a trainer as well.) Eventually, his name proved out, and much of Britain’s horsey set came to think of Best Mate as, well, a best mate. This did tend to lead to clashes between the media and Knight, as the media and the horse’s sizable fan base thought he should race more often. But again I ask: did Knight’s methods work? You tell me. A National Hunt horse never finishing worse than second and never failing to clear a hurdle. Has that ever happened before?
Anne Holland has produced a gorgeous biography of the beast in this book, though it went to press just after Best Mate took down his third Gold Cup, and thus missed the tragic end to his story that came soon after (he suffered a suspected heart attack during the running of the 2005 Haldon Gold Cup and died almost immediately thereafter; his ashes are interred, of course, next to the finish line post at Cheltenham). That may be for the best; the book was produced while Best Mate was still at the top of his game, and horse fans the world over were still capable of believing in fairy tales. And perhaps it is wrong of me to ding the book for being what it is—a fairy tale. It is a beautiful thing indeed, like Best Mate, but unlike the horse it is a very shallow one, with almost the feel of a propaganda piece rather than a biography. And if I am really honest with myself I don’t actually mind that. So I’m going to keep the rating relatively low (but three stars is, still, above average) and point that out, but I’m going to tell you that doesn’t make remembering this journey through rose-colored glasses one whit less enjoyable. ***
How are none of Best Mate’s Cheltenham Gold Cups on Youtube? Instead, the 2002 King George VI Chase from Kempton. Three miles over fences… in America we can’t get horses to run half that distance on the flat for pete’s sake…