29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 76

French challenge

Robin Oakley

Thank you Jonny Wilkinson. That extratime dropped goal in the Rugby World Cup final was the best answer to an Australian question since the England cricket captain who grew bored with the endless formalities passing through Australian Customs. His response as the Aussie bureaucrat reached the query, 'Any convictions?' was terse. `No, I didn't know they were still required.' But the Australians were as graceful in defeat as they had been verbally aggressive in the run-up to the World Cup final. And at least we can now stop dragging up our last football World Cup victory. Harking back to a match won in 1966 has been giving British sports fans an air of dated desperation.

The Australians certainly do have their own style. One Aussie encountering another in a London pub at 7 a.m. for an earlier round in the Cup pointed to his fistful of pints: 'Strewth, mate, at 7 a.m. — are you an alcoholic?' Of course not,' came the reply. 'Alcoholics go to meetings. I'm just a drunk.'

It is all a matter of perspective, and regaining perspective after last Saturday's racing at Huntingdon was a bit of a struggle for some of us. Staying on in front of the TV set for extra time and battling with the monsoon down the Mll and the A14 I arrived too late for the first two races. The rain was coming in from all angles, the zipper on my Barbour had gone once again, and it was so cold I was tempted to work my way through the hog roast, the baked potato and the Cornish pasty counters for sheer consolation. Only the need to be able to get into my DJ to speak at a charity dinner that night held me back. Well, that and the thought of the baleful glare from Mrs Oakley.

No matter. Like some 4,000 others I had gone to Huntingdon for one simple reason: the seasonal debut of Best Mate. If the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner is only going to grace a racecourse three times a year, then you do not miss any chance to see a horse which exuded such class and authority in his triumphs. I had arrived ready to lump on Best Mate for his seasonal debut in the Peterborough Chase. And after the money saved on the first two races and a couple of 6-1 winners, I was ready to empty my pockets on him. As he braved the rain lashing the parade ring, Best Mate looked stronger than ever, particularly about the neck, ready to eyeball anybody. Henrietta Knight had assured us that he was fully fit. But then I noticed the attention Henrietta and Jim Lewis. Best Mate's owner, were paying to Jair du Cochet, the six-year-old challenger from France, and after watching Guillaume Macaire's big horse pacing round the parade ring with huge flexible strides like an outsize panther I was, for once, sensible enough to keep my wallet in my pocket. His trainer has been turning out winners like Wilkinson kicks penalties, Jair du Cochet was a fit horse with two runs behind him, and Best Mate was being asked to give him five pounds.

In a muddling race on sloppy going and in lashing rain, Best Mate never showed his usual fluency over the Huntingdon fences, seeming to slip at the fourth last, and Jair du Cochet, despite a blunder at the last under the much-criticised (in this country) Jacques Ricou, went on to score by a comfortable eight lengths. Though I no longer have the precise words, my racecard notes having squelched into a sodden papier-mache mess of the kind used these days to fashion presidential effigies, I recall that Henrietta Knight and Jim Lewis offered explanations rather than excuses.

Henrietta still insisted that Best Mate had been fully fit but pointed out that when earlier in his career he had been beaten over hurdles by Barton at Aintree it had been on similarly sloppy going. The three miles of the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Gold Cup, she pointed out, will suit Best Mate better. Certainly the Best Mate team were not daunted by the prospect of facing Jair du Cachet again. Jim Lewis was among the first to congratulate Macaire, but his cheery parting words were: 'See you at Kempton.' Henrietta Knight was equally unfazed, Jair du Cochet, she said, was a very good horse but of Best Mate she added, 'Better here than at Cheltenham, Don't despair. He'll be back.' And the gentlemen with the satchels clearly agreed. Best Mate's price for the next Gold Cup went out only from 5-4 to 6-4.

What is enticing, though, is that in Jair du Cochet we now have another potential star on the jumping scene, at least when the ground is forgiving. The French horse thrilled us all with his first two races over hurdles at Chepstow and Cheltenham two years ago and he was a pretty impressive novice chaser last year. He might have been hailed as the best of the bunch if his jockey had not given him too much to do in the latter stages of the Royal and Sun Alliance Chase in which he failed to catch One Knight. I would still back Best Mate to beat Jair du Cochet on good ground at Cheltenham but their next contest will be worth travelling a long way to see, whatever other sporting fixtures there may be that day. And a few more will now be ready to have a crack at the Gold Cup winner, which has to be good for racing.