Listen to this article
A thin scar is visible near the left eye of the best-loved steeplechaser in England. As Best Mate chomps Polo mints in his stable at Henrietta Knight's farm near Wantage, Oxfordshire, the mark serves as a reminder of the multitudinous ways in which plans can go awry in the unforgiving sport of jumps racing.
Best Mate sustained the injury in December by banging his head in the horsebox on his way to race in Ire- land. He lost that day for only the seventh time in 21 starts. But few will remember that if he triumphs in his 22nd race, the 2005 Cheltenham Gold Cup in 13 days' time. This would make him only the second horse to win the sport's blue riband event four times in succession.
He certainly looks well enough, ears pricked and alert, as he braves wintry rain to parade for the cameras. As Knight later observes, he is "a bit of a show-off". She and Terry Biddlecombe, the straight-talking ex-jockey who is her co-trainer and husband, "couldn't be more pleased with him", although "we don't need too much rain".
Even if the Cheltenham ground is suitable, however, "Matey" faces a tough battle if he is to outstrip Arkle, the great champion of the 1960s, whose three Gold Cup victories he matched last year. This is reflected in the betting market, with odds of 11/4 still available, against the price of 8/11 he carried to victory 12 months ago.
In addition to Beef or Salmon, his vanquisher in December, Kingscliff, Strong Flow, Celestial Gold and last year's runner-up Sir Rembrandt, then beaten by just half a length, could all pose a threat on March 18.
"Kingscliff and Celestial Gold are the two that I fear most," Knight says, acknow- ledging that the 2005 field looks "much stronger" than last year's. "I think they have both acted around Cheltenham. I'm sure Strong Flow is a very good horse too and he jumps exceptionally well, but he hasn't been to Cheltenham yet, has he?"
Biddlecombe separately confides that he is "not too worried about Kingscliff actually".
Though the pair, one of steeplechasing's best-known double acts, are entertaining and patient hosts, there is some tension in the air - hardly surprising so close to the big day.
"The last 14-21 days are so important," says Knight. "All they have to do is tread on a stone or something. The fitter they are, the more likely they are for something to snap."
A sore throat bug has also been present at the yard. Best Mate was "absolutely fine" when "scoped" last week, but, Knight says, you cannot tell until horses race whether the bug is still with them. That said, "we haven't had any positives …for 10 days now, so I'm hoping it is on the wane."
The litany of potential hazards makes it an achievement simply to get a horse to four Gold Cups in a row, let alone to win them. Arkle never made it to his fourth, having cracked a pedal bone.
It is readily comprehensible all in all why Knight and owner Jim Lewis have stewarded their champion so carefully, restricting him to just three races a year.
It is understandable too why his training team have turned superstition into an art form, repeating as much as possible of prior years' routines, although Cheltenham have not made things easier by extending the festival from three to four days.
Thus Knight was pleased this week to receive a container of potted shrimp, as in previous years. Biddlecombe, meanwhile, is bravely considering not taking his new gout pills over the crucial period.
Be alerted on News