03/19/2004 1:00AM

Best Mate makes history in England


CHELTENHAM, England - For fans of jump racing, there is no greater event than the annual Cheltenham Festival, held each spring in England's beautiful Cotswold country. The festival offers a three-day banquet of 20 ultra-competitive races over fences and hurdles, nine of them Grade 1's, and this past Thursday a record crowd of 57,643 turned up to watch the 9-year-old Best Mate, Britain's most talented chaser, try to win his third straight Gold Cup, a feat no horse had accomplished since the beloved Irish-bred Arkle, known informally as Himself, pulled it off in 1966.

So famous was Arkle in his day that he received mail from all over the world, often addressed to "Arkle, Ireland." It got delivered, too, by mailmen on bicycles. He drank Guinness from his feed bucket and had such talent he often shouldered 25 or more pounds than his opponents in handicaps. Though Best Mate prefers Polo mints to ale, he also has a huge fan club, but he doesn't compete in handicaps, only in chases at level weights - Gold Cup horses each carry 164 pounds - and he had won 9 out of 12 of them going into the festival.

Like most big-time sporting events now, the Cheltenham Festival is an uneasy marriage of the sublime and the blatantly commercial. True horse fanciers rave about the superb racing and the glorious landscape, but they're puzzled by such new developments as The Centaur, a Vegas-style room with tiered seating, slot machines, blaring music, and a giant-screen TV. The Centaur has betting facilities and six bars, so some punters settle in for a virtual experience and never go outside to see a horse in the flesh. Traditionalists avoid the place like the plague.

The Irish discovered Cheltenham shortly after World War II, when the legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien started sending his horses over to challenge (and usually defeat) the Brits, and they still come in large numbers to support Ireland's best hurdlers and chasers. The craic, or fun, is always very good, despite the high prices - a turf club-type ticket on Gold Cup Day costs about $100 and doesn't include a seat - and the fact that the Irish horses are at a distinct disadvantage. They're all shippers who travel to England by ferry, and then to the track by van, and they must compete over a demanding course that some of them have never laid eyes on before.

This year, though, the Irish had plenty to cheer about. They produced a monumental roar when Brave Inca beat 18 other horses to take the Supreme Novices' Hurdle over two-plus miles, the first race of the festival. Colm Murphy, Brave Inca's young trainer, has a very small stable, so the win was especially sweet, as was the victory of Total Enjoyment (7-1) in the Champion Bumper, the only flat race on the card, again over two-plus miles. Tom Cooper trains the horse in Tralee, County Kerry, and his grateful supporters hoisted him onto their shoulders and paraded him in front of the stands while they sang a rousing boozy rendition of "The Rose of Tralee."

The Irish won four races in all at the festival and celebrated them with astonishing gusto, none more potently than when Hardy Eustace (33-1) nipped England's heavily favored Rooster Booster in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, Tuesday's big race, worth about $200,000 to the winner. It was an emotional moment since Kieran Kelly, the horse's regular jockey, had died after a fall at Kilbeggan last autumn. His replacement, Conor O'Dwyer, gave heavenly credit and felt, he said, that "Kieran was definitely looking down on me."

Rooster Booster was one of four champions returning to defend a title, in fact. The bookies made it a 14-1 longshot that they all would succeed, and as usual the bookies had it right. Next to be toppled was Moscow Flyer, Ireland's ace two-mile chaser, who paddled through a fence and unseated his rider while seeking to repeat in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The classy French hurdler Baracouda, who was seeking a third straight win in the testing three-mile Stayers' Hurdle, followed suit by finishing second to Iris's Gift, causing everyone to wonder if fate would treat Best Mate as unkindly.

Most trainers are superstitious, but Henrietta Knight, who conditions Best Mate, is in a league of her own. She saw positive signs everywhere around her - an amaryllis that flowered at the proper time and a hawk that began flying over her gallops at home. For luck, she wore the same blue suit she wore to the Gold Cup last year, ate with the same group of people, and fretfully watched the race on TV. She loves and pampers her horses and can't bear the thought that one might fall,

Whether Knight's elaborate rituals affected the weather nobody can say for certain. But Cheltenham did get some needed rain on Wednesday night, and the going for the Gold Cup was good (good to soft in places), ideal for Best Mate. He is the sport's most fluid jumper, so the 22 stiff fences he would tackle over 3 5/16 miles wouldn't intimidate him. His chief rival, Jair du Cochet, a gifted French chaser who had defeated him at Huntingdon in November, suffered an injury just before the festival and had to be euthanized, thereby reducing the competition to nine pretenders, none of whom appeared to pose a serious threat.

But racing is rarely that predictable, as the fans were soon reminded. Jim Culloty, Best Mate's jockey, headed for the rail at the break and let First Gold, another French import, dominate the pace and lead the field around at a good gallop. For a couple of minutes, it looked as if First Gold might steal the race on the front end, but it was Harbour Pilot, an Irish outsider at 20-1, who gave Best Mate a real scare. His rider, Paul Carberry, is perhaps the finest natural horseman in the jumps game and also tough as nails. As the horses approached the third-last fence, Carberry had Best Mate boxed in and in a spot of trouble.

"The cheeky bugger," Carberry would later say of Culloty. "Did he think I'd let him get up my inside?"

Instead, Culloty had to sweep around both Harbour Pilot and a tiring First Gold and managed to snatch up a very narrow lead at the second-last fence. It was an all-out drive to the line, with Best Mate prevailing over a fast-finishing Sir Rembrandt (33-1) by only a half-length. The performance didn't rate high in terms of form, but it did show that Best Mate could mix it up and triumph over adversity, and the bookies were quick to install him at 5-2 to win a fourth Gold Cup next year.