03/16/2004 1:00AM

Best Mate goes for third Cheltenham Gold Cup


Best Mate can write his name in the history books by winning Thursday's Cheltenham Gold Cup, the $630,000 steeplechase that the 9-year-old gelding has won in each of the last two years.

A third consecutive Gold Cup victory would mark the first time that achievement has been accomplished since the great Arkle turned the trick between 1964 and 1966. Best Mate will start at no higher than 1-2 on Thursday against nine rivals going 3 5/16 miles over 22 fences around picturesque Cheltenham Racecourse, which lies in the foothills of the Cotswolds about 100 miles northwest of London.

One who will not test Best Mate is Jair du Cochet, the French-trained chaser who beat the defending champ in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon on Nov. 22. Jair du Cochet had to be put down last week after breaking a leg in a training accident, thus making Best Mate's task at Cheltenham that much easier.

The Gold Cup favorite traveled to Ireland to land the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown on Dec. 28, beating Thursday's rival Beef Or Salmon 13 lengths into third. Best Mate has not run since then, but this is the same schedule trainer Henrietta Knight employed prior to his first two Gold Cup victories, when he won off prep runs in the Dec. 26 King George Chase at Kempton. Jim Culloty, who partnered Best Mate in both of his Gold Cup triumphs, will be in the saddle.

Another French invader, First Gold, may hold the best chance of an upset. His trainer Francois Doumen took the Gold Cup with The Fellow in 1994, but like Keen Leader and Irish Hussar, he may be inconvenienced by Cheltenham's wild undulations.

On Tuesday, Hardy Eustace caused a shocking 33-1 upset over the 11-8 favorite and defending titleholder Rooster Booster in the 2 1/16-mile $540,000 Champion Hurdle. Wearing blinkers for the first time, the winner of last year's Sun Alliance Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham prevailed by five lengths over the fast finishing Rooster Booster with Intersky Falcon third and French invader Foreman fourth. Trained in Ireland by Dessie Hughes, the father of top flat jockey Richard Hughes, Hardy Eustace was ridden by Conor O'Dwyer.