03/18/2004 1:00AM

Best Mate wins third Cheltenham Cup


Best Mate succeeded in winning his third consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Thursday, but had to reach down deep for all of his considerable reserves to get the job done in one of the most dramatic of the Gold Cup's 77 runnings.

Given a ground-saving ride by Jim Culloty, Best Mate, the 8-11 favorite, was always traveling smoothly behind the pacesetting First Gold. Turning for home, however, Best Mate found himself hemmed in as Harbour Pilot ranged up alongside with just two fences to go.

Culloty was able to squeeze him through and take a short lead landing over the second-to-last of the Gold Cup's 22 obstacles, but the 20-1 Harbour Pilot proved relentless. Meanwhile, the 33-1 Sir Rembrandt was charging up on the opposite side of the track with Best Mate maintaining a half-length margin jumping the last fence.

Best Mate responded to the dual challenge, holding on desperately over Sir Rembrandt by a half-length with Harbour Pilot another 1 1/4 lengths back in third. Thus, the Henrietta Knight-trained Best Mate became the first horse to win Britain's most coveted steeplechase three times in succession since the legendary Arkle, whose hat trick came between 1964 and 1966.

Victory in the Grade 1, 3 5/16-mile chase was worth $368,729 to Best Mate's owner, Jim Lewis, while the winning time on ground termed good (good to soft in places) was 6:42.60.

A 9-year-old gelding, Best Mate has already been installed as the 5-2 favorite to win a fourth Gold Cup next year.

* The handle on the Gold Cup in North America was $14,948, according to Attheraces, the company that set up the simulcasts from Cheltenham. Betting on the race was available in limited locations. Total handle for the five Cheltenham races offered was $63,592, although many outlets didn't take all of the races because of the time difference.