Racing: Flagship guided by a gentle hand

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Hers are hands that could have been comforting the injured or collaring the lawbreaker. Instead, they are reassuring a champion racehorse, smoothing his muscular neck in the stable, holding his power in gentle check at exercise. Lisa Burge, who once wanted to be a policewoman, has stayed with her first love and now, as head girl to Philip Hobbs and nanny to the stable's star, Flagship Uberalles, is now just 10 days away from her date with destiny.

Flagship Uberalles, second favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the two-mile crown on the middle day of the Cheltenham Festival, is a horse of immense natural talent but circumstances have given him a roller-coaster career and life. Hobbs is his third trainer in as many years but his physical and mental vicissitudes seem to be stabilising in the bracing sea air at Sandhill Stables, near Minehead, and on the slopes of the Brendon Hills.

The American-owned eight-year-old joined Hobbs at the start of the season. It was up to Burge to decide who should look after him and she took the pragmatic way out. "He was already a star and everyone wanted to have him," she said, "so rather than cause ill-feeling I decided to do him myself. And now that I know him, he is the nicest horse in the world, a gentleman in every way."

Burge, 28, arrived at her local racing stable as a horse-mad teenager straight from school. "I wanted to join the police force, to get into the mounted division eventually, but they told me to go away and come back when I was older," she said, "so I thought I'd do what I wanted and work with horses in the meantime. And it seems I'm still here."

After four years, the articulate and vivacious Burge had risen through the ranks to become head girl. "I've seen the place grow from about 30 horses we had when I came to the 100 or so we've got now. The size of the team and the quality has grown all the time, improving every year. It makes it all so worth while.

"It's a skilled job with responsibility and I love it. And the money's good now, especially for this area. I'd be hard-pushed to find anything better that I enjoyed as much. The atmosphere here is great. Everyone is willing to help each other and we're all friends as well as colleagues."

Flagship Uberalles' record stands close inspection. His 12 victories (he was with Paul Nicholls and Noel Chance previously) include the two-mile novices' title, the Arkle Chase, and three successive Tingle Creek Chases.

But he has his frailties and has to be carefully managed to keep him sweet in body and mind. A lot of his personalised routine with Burge involves kidding him he's not a racehorse. "He doesn't like going on the all-weather with the string, so we hack him out in a hunting saddle up and down the hills, and he hardly realises he's working," she said. "He wears specially weighted hind boots as physiotherapy for the muscular problems he's had in his quarters. He doesn't like swimming in our pool, so we take him down to the beach and let him wade in the sea. He loves that, right up to his chest, though I get soaked."

In her time with racehorses, Burge has experienced highs and lows. She looked after Kibreet, who won the Grand Annual Chase, one of the Festival's lesser contests, in 1996. But she has known every stable hand's nightmare, returning home with an empty bridle to an empty stable, when her beloved Dr Leunt died at Cheltenham in January two years ago.

She admits to increasing nervousness as the big day approaches and her handsome charge, all 505 glossy kilos of him, reaches his peak. "I couldn't bear to watch when he had his first run for us, when he won that third Tingle Creek at Sandown in December," she said. "He is something special, but it's not just because he's a good horse. I'd love him even if he couldn't win a selling plate." Somerset Constabulary's loss is undoubtedly racing's gain.