03/11/2003 1:00AM

Best Mate favored to repeat


Best Mate will be a solid 3-2 choice when he defends his title in Thursday's $560,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup in England, the most sought after prize in the steeplechasing world.

An 8-year-old Irish-bred gelding by Un Desperado, Best Mate has had a pair of ideal preps since winning last year's 3 5/16-mile race. In his last race, on Dec. 26, he took the King George VI Chase at Kempton by 1 1/2 lengths from Marlborough, who had been fourth in last year's Gold Cup and who runs again on Thursday.

Best Mate's trainer, Henrietta Knight, will give a leg up to Jim Culloty, the jockey who rode him to victory in last year's race. With the ground expected to be slightly on the soft side of good, all signs point to another triumph for Best Mate, who has never been worse than second in 15 career starts over jumps, with 10 of those victories.

Run twice around the hilly New Course over 22 fences, the Gold Cup requires equal amounts of stamina and courage. Best Mate is seeking to become the first horse to score back-to-back Gold Cup triumphs since L'Escargot in 1970-71.

Chief among Best Mate's opponents is Beef or Salmon. Trained by Michael Hourigan, Beef or Salmon has won four in a row in Ireland but has never been farther than three miles.

* Rooster Booster scored a 9-2 upset in the two-mile Champion Hurdle on the first day of Cheltenham's three-day National Hunt Festival on Tuesday. Ridden by Richard Johnson for trainer Philip Hobbs, Rooster Booster defeated Westender by 11 lengths with the 5-2 choice Rhinestone Cowboy another three lengths back in third.