03/14/2002 1:00AM

Best Mate takes Cheltenham gold

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CHELTENHAM, England - Best Mate emphasized his status as one of steeplechasing's rising stars with a hard-fought win in Thursday's Cheltenham Gold Cup on a cold, blustery day at Cheltenham Racecourse.

Making his first start since Dec. 26, the 7-year-old Best Mate got a perfect ride from jockey Jim Culloty to win the Gold Cup by 1 3/4 lengths over Commanche Court. See More Business, the 1999 winner, finished third. Looks Like Trouble, who won the race in 2000 and was considered the defending champion in light of last year's cancellation because of foot-and-mouth disease, was unplaced as the 5-1 favorite.

Looks Like Trouble led for the first two miles before being joined by See More Business. The two raced together for much of the last mile until Commanche Court and Best Mate moved closer.

Commanche Court, the winner of the 2000 Irish Grand National, took the lead with two fences remaining but could not shake off Best Mate, who rallied on the inside. Best Mate led at the final fence and was kept to the task through the uphill finish.

The Gold Cup, run over 3 miles, 2 1/2 furlongs, was the longest win in the 13-race career of Best Mate, who has won eight times for owner Jim Lewis and trainer Henrietta Knight.

In the preceding race, Pelagos, second in the Meadowbrook Hurdle at Belmont Park last June, finished 12th of 18 in the Stayers' Hurdle over 3 1/4 miles. He was ridden by Blythe Miller for trainer Bruce Miller and owner Michael Hoffman of Leesburg, Va.