Best Mate's much-anticipated racecourse return ended in tragedy as he suffered a suspected fatal heart attack in the William Hill Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
Paul Carberry tracked the leader Ashley Brook for the first half of the race on Henrietta Knight's triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner but he started to nudge the horse on as the leaders moved clear.
The jockey began to ease him in the home straight, eventually pulling him up, and screens were swiftly erected around him.
Knight's husband and assistant Terry Biddlecombe said: "Paul is a good jockey and he knew something was wrong. The only consolation is it was pretty instantaneous and he wouldn't have felt any pain."
Best Mate had been forced to miss an attempt at a fourth consecutive Gold Cup when he burst a blood vessel in his final workout before the big race.
He had not raced in public since finishing second in Ireland last Christmas, but connections had reported all had been well with the 10-year-old in his preparations for his reappearance.
Knight said: "I have ridden a horse before who suffered a heart attack while I was on board and I have to say this looks reminiscent of that. The legs go, they wobble and then they go down.
"I was actually on the track where he came down and I was the first one there. I knew immediately he had died.
"As I saw him go down I knew I was seeing a dead horse and I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible."
She continued: "I am very proud of him - he looked an absolute picture today on a course he loved. He was a joy to work with and a privilege to train.
"Obviously I am very sorry for the jockey and for Mr and Mrs Lewis (owners), who are distraught.
"It is probably harder for a lot of people watching the race than it is for Terry and I, as we are more used to this sort of thing happening.
"He was a very, very popular horse with a tremendous following and now there is a big vacuum.
"Even this morning he was getting good luck cards in the post - but I suppose we have all got to go one day and at least he didn't do anything terrible like fall or break a leg.
"We will all miss him very much."
The news of Best Mate's death was announced to racegoers over the public address system.
Exeter assistant general manager Vicki Robinson said: "It is with great regret that I have to tell you Best Mate has raced his last race at Exeter today.
"Very sadly he died during the race - we offer our deepest condolences to Jim and Valerie Lewis, who have been fantastic supporters here, and to Henrietta and Terry too."
Edward Gillespie, managing director of Cheltenham racecourse where Best Mate enjoyed so much success, said: "We are all very shocked here and saddened for everyone in jumps racing.
"Mostly for Henrietta, Terry, Jim and Valerie, who were closest to him, but somehow it is different because Best Mate attracted so many people to pay attention to the sport who would otherwise not even look at the racing pages.
"He had the most impact on the sport of any horse in the last 40 years, there can be no question of that.
"We don't lose many really high-profile horses in such a way, I suppose One Man of the jumpers would be the first I can remember, but Best Mate was higher profile.
"I feel so sorry for everyone, we waited 40 years for one like him and he was great."
Exeter clerk of the course Barry Johnson confirmed a heart problem had been the cause of death.
He said: "The veterinary surgeon who attended the horse has confirmed it was definitely a cardiac problem - there was nothing they could do for him."
Lewis said: "He was a great racehorse - there can have been very few in the world like him.
"He helped us raise thousands of pounds for charity and he made a lot of difference to many people's lives.
"What a pleasure he was to own and how much he meant to me. I will never forget him."
Lewis revealed Best Mate will be buried at Exeter.
He added: "This is where it all began with him.
"He won his first chase here and was never beaten here before today. It seems like the right place.
"This has been a terrible day but I am still very, very proud of him and there won't be many who did what he did."
The Grade Two contest went to the Philip Hobbs-trained Monkerhostin (10-1), who romped away under Richard Johnson to a comfortable four-length success over Kauto Star.
DIRECTORATE CHANGE AT ARENA LEISURE
Arena Leisure Plc ("Arena" or "the Company") is pleased to announce the appointment of Raymond Mould, as Non - Executive Deputy Chairman, with effect from November 1, 2005.
Coinciding with this new appointment, John Barnes has retired from his position as Non-Executive Director at Arena, with effect from October 31, 2005.
Mr Mould, 64, a qualified solicitor, is a highly regarded businessman with a long track record of corporate achievement and close association with the horseracing and property industries. He is currently Chairman of London & Stamford Investments Ltd and was Executive Chairman of Pillar Property Plc until May 2005 when it was acquired by British Land Plc. He is also Chairman of Fleming Family & Partners Russia Real Estate Limited.
Roger Withers, Chairman of Arena said: "The Board would like to thank John Barnes for all of his work at Arena. He has been a Board member since the Company's formation in 1997 and has made an extraordinary contribution to the Company's growth over that time. We wish him well in all his other ventures."
"I would like to welcome Raymond Mould to the Arena Board. His wealth of experience in horseracing where he has won the Grand National with Bindaree, and in property development, will prove invaluable in the next stage of Arena's development."
AT THE RACES LAUNCHED ON SKY MOBILE TV
At The Races is delighted to announce its launch on Sky Mobile TV - further enhancing the accessibility and profile of UK and Irish racing.
As the most popular dedicated horseracing channel in the UK, ATR is committed to making racing accessible to as many audiences as possible. This includes a strategy of exploiting cutting edge technologies to offer the widest possible distribution and cross platform access, be that on television, broadband or mobile phones.
Part of the Sky Mobile TV offering, as launched on the Vodafone network yesterday, At The Races is available to all Vodafone live! with 3G customers. Currently numbering over 250,000, these customers will be able to enjoy access to At The Races line up of top quality UK and Irish racing free until 31st January 2006.
TRAINERS TALK ABOUT THEIR HOPES FOR THE NEW ALL-WEATHER SEASON
The 2005/2006 all-weather season opens at Wolverhampton on Monday, November 7, and promises to be the most exciting ever, with a host of trainers priming increasingly strong teams to compete for almost £5 million in prize money on offer, before the campaign comes to an end on Saturday, March 18, 2006, at Lingfield - betdirect.co.uk Winter Derby Day.
Chris Brown, New Media Gaming Director at Littlewoods Gaming said: "Bet Direct has benefited enormously from their long term association with all-weather racing over the past four seasons. We are looking forward to another season of winter racing which runs from November 7 through to March 18 culminating with the £100,000 betdirect.co.uk Winter Derby at Lingfield Park."
Trainer Andrew Reid, successful with Eccentric last season in the betdirect.co.uk Winter Derby and the only handler based in Greater London, is looking forward to another successful winter and has strengthened his hand with an interesting new recruit from overseas, the South American star Freddy.
Reid revealed: "I have the champion horse of South America, Freddy, from a couple of seasons back. He's won a classic and five Group One races."
See below for more information on Andrew Reid's all-weather challenge.
Kevin Ryan is also looking forward to the coming campaign and has assembled a strong team.
He revealed: "I think we'll have a team of about 20 for the all-weather this winter and there'll be some nice horses amongst them to go for the better races."
Ryan reveals more of their thoughts on the all-weather season below.
Mark Brisbourne is hoping to build on his success of last season when he was leading trainer at Wolverhampton. He has assembled a good team and is expecting to challenge for some of the better prizes
Brisbourne said: "We'll have a nucleus of about 15 or 20 horses for the all-weather season. Those would include a few fresh ones but also old-stagers."
For more information on Mark Brisbourne and his horses, read below.
Eccentric was the undoubted star of last winter, winning five times on the Polytrack. Eccentric progressed from his success on the all-weather, to land the Group Three Winter Hill Stakes on turf at Windsor this summer. His campaign for the forthcoming season is likely to be geared towards Dubai but the Mill Hill handler has another potentially exciting horse to look forward to on the all-weather.
"I'm looking forward to the new season. I have about 10, which is less than before."
Reid, who was top trainer at Lingfield last winter, is hopeful that a new addition to his Mill Hill string can go some way towards emulating Eccentric's success of last winter. Freddy was a star in Argentina in 2002, when his wins included South America's premier all-age race, the Group One Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini at San Isidro over a mile and a half.
He said: "I do have a very interesting horse here. I have the champion horse of South America from a couple of seasons back. He's a horse called Freddy and he's won a classic and five Group Ones in South America. He then went to California where he's done absolutely nothing for the last three years. He will be looking for action by the end of November.
"I'd hope to be able to produce the same number of winners as last season. I've got some two-year-olds coming in and some nice three-year-olds that I didn't run so I think it's achievable even with a smaller amount of horses."
Paul Blockley ended the 2004/2005 all-weather season as the leading trainer nationally with 24 winners to his credit from 211 runners, and would be happy to repeat that effort but is not chasing any lofty ambitions.
The Newport trainer enjoyed the patronage of last winter's leading all-weather owner Nigel Shields, whose Wessex was never out of the first three in seven outings at Southwell and Wolverhampton last term. The five-year-old notched a hat-trick of victories over seven furlongs and a mile between December and February.
Blockley said: "I don't have a target but I live in hope that I can have another good season . I had the same approach last year, I just take it as it comes. We get the turf season over, go on holiday, then come back, look at the all-weather and see what we've got."
Mark Brisbourne topped the trainers' table at Wolverhampton with 18 of his 20 winners coming at the Midlands track, which is like a home from home for his string.
Brisbourne revealed: "The Polytrack at Wolverhampton is virtually the same as the gallop my horses work on at home so they know what's underfoot. It's a good surface and more trainers are installing it.
"If a track suits your horses then that's a bonus. The other thing about Wolverhampton that appeals so much to me is that it's only about 40 miles away. My owners love going there and it's a very laid-back set-up."
The Shropshire trainer is looking forward to the coming campaign and has his team primed for action, including Roman Maze, winner of three races from 10 starts at Wolverhampton last winter, as well as two placed efforts at Lingfield.
He said: "Hopefully we'll have a nucleus of about 15 or 20 horses for the all-weather season from November to March. Those would include a few fresh ones but also old-stagers like Iced Diamond who won at Catterick in September, Roman Maze and Merry Maker. They all won at Wolverhampton last season and Roman Maze will go for a couple of the bigger handicaps before having a break after Christmas."
Iced Diamond raced nine times last winter and was seen at all three all-weather tracks. The six-year-old scored over seven furlongs at Lingfield and Wolverhampton in February. Merrymaker raced four times last winter, each outing coming before Christmas, and picked up a one mile six furlong handicap at Wolverhampton last November.
David Barron's 15 winners at Southwell saw the North Yorkshire handler emerge as leading trainer at the Nottinghamshire venue.
He said: "I've had a lot of success at Southwell. I prefer going there than any of the other all-weather tracks because it's a lot handier for me and my preference is for that surface as well. It's a good deep slow surface which suits my horses.
"I'll start this season the same as every season, with no targets. We'll see what we end up with. We probably won't have too many runners there this side of Christmas, but will have a few there later on. We have a few horses about but saying that there are no plans. We'll just see what we have. We have a few two-year-olds and three-year-olds that are likely to run."
Kevin Ryan ended last winter with 17 all-weather winners from 131 runners. That put him in fourth place in the national trainers' championship, while his nine winners at Southwell placed him third at the Midlands track.
Ryan said: "I think we'll have a team of about 20 for the all-weather this winter and there'll be some nice horses amongst them to go for the better races. I love it and the prize money every year is getting better. When you've got that sort of prize money on offer and you've got the right horses to run on it, I think it's great. If you've got backward two-year-olds that really are maybe not coming to hand until this time of year, it allows you to get some experience into them as well."
The Irishman is looking forward to sending runners south from his North Yorkshire yard and hopes to collect some of the all-weather's more valuable events with stable stalwarts like Quiet Times and Cardinal Venture. Quiet Times finished an encouraging fourth at Lingfield on October 30 in the Unicorn Handicap, his first start since March.
He declared: "We've got a few for the bigger races. Quiet Times did very well in one or two of the decent sprints last year. He's an all-weather horse who doesn't go on grass so he's had a nice long break and he'll be targeted at some of the better sprints.
"Hopefully, we'll also have one or two to aim at the Lincoln trial which is a bit later and Cardinal Venture, who did very well last year, will be running all winter. We have a few other horses that haven't had before and we'll be campaigning them too but at the moment we haven't made any firm plans exactly what we're going to run."
Gary Moore was second to Reid on prize money won at Lingfield and ended the season with 14 winners from 84 runners. The trainer's Dark Parade won at all three Arena Leisure tracks last winter, a rarity for a Moore horse, as the East Sussex-based trainer had only four winners in total away from Lingfield.
Moore said: "Lingfield is the closest but it's also the nicest racecourse of the three. It's a marvellous surface and it's really horse friendly. I have about half a dozen horses for this season. Dark Parade will be going on the all-weather again if he doesn't take to jumping. He just got back from Spain where he's been racing in Mijas, so it will take him a while to get over that. I have a few two-year-olds that could also run."
Tony Carroll has a soft spot for Wolverhampton. He was third overall on the national table with 21 winners and enjoyed a particularly good winter at Dunstall Park, where 18 winners from 98 runners yielded an 18% strike-rate and saw him finish second to Mark Brisbourne on prize money won at the course.
"We're happy to run at all three all-weather tacks but Wolverhampton is my favourite. We enjoy Wolverhampton because it's close to us and I feel that the surface is the best of the three."
He continued: "We'll have about 12 to 15 for the all-weather, including a couple of the old-stagers from last year but a few have moved on, like Ziet d'Alsace who has gone to stud, so there are a few fresh ones for this year. We've some nice horses. Savoy Chapel and Plausabelle did well last year but they've gone up the handicap. That's not to say they won't win but they'll be harder to place."