Racing: King George beckons for impressive Strong Flow

Independent Novices' Chase: Prominent West Country stable missed opportunity to train new owner Barry Marshall's potential champion

There is somewhere out west, probably in Somerset, a significant trainer who is feeling quite sick at the moment. This is the person who once turned down Barry Marshall as an owner. It therefore follows that the likes of Armaturk, Vol Solitaire and, most damagingly of all, Strong Flow, were also refused. It must have been a little irksome for our trainer to see Marshall's black and orange colours flashing past the post in the Hennessy Gold Cup last month. We wonder who it could be.

Barry Marshall, the son of a Cornish farmer, started owning racehorses only less that three years ago. The children had been educated and there was money left over from his job in Russia and Turkey for Carlsberg. "I made contact with one major West Country stable, which had better remain nameless and they basically told me to submit what I wanted in writing and they would get back to me," the 56-year-old says. "Effectively they indicated no interest.

"At Manor Farm Stables, on the other hand, they made me feel welcome. Paul [Nicholls] was actually on holiday the first time I went down there and when he got back there was a message to ring this prospective owner in Russia which has the code of 007. He thought it was a wind-up for a while, but he got hold of me in the Shamrock bar in St Petersburg."

Strong Flow was purchased via Tom Costello after success in a point-to-point at Askeaton, Co. Limerick. He was not cheap then, but not expensive now either after an explosive success in the Hennessy which was sufficient to earn the brown gelding the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser of the month Award for November given in association with The Independent. Strong Flow has won all his completed starts over fences, none more impressively than the Hennessy itself. A hefty contretemps with the ninth fence apart, it was a piece of cake. In beating Joss Naylor 14 lengths, he was the first novice to win in 47 runnings of the Newbury race.

It should have been a joyous occasion for connections. It should have been. "My wife, daughter and sister-in-law fled into the toilets crying before the race and my trainer couldn't face it either," Marshall said. "He went into the owners and trainers' bar and fortified himself with some large vodkas.

"I was in a bit of a daze myself. By the time he took the second last and was clearly going to win as long as he stood up I was in a sort of coma. The excitement didn't really hit me until some time afterwards."

The Marshall family has already enjoyed and endured the full range of sensations which National Hunt racing can provide. The sweet smell of success and the foul taste of disaster. Earlier this year their hugely promising chaser Vol Solitaire was found injured in his field. The vets looked at him and the vets shook their heads. "It was a freak accident while he was out at grass," Marshall remembers.

"It gutted the family. Despair is the only word. It was a rough period for a few weeks. It took me some time to recover. One moment I had a beautiful five-year-old animal and the next I had nothing. My family went through a bad time as well. I had to ring my wife from Turkey and tell her they'd had to put him down. She broke down in tears. Just after that there was a knock at the door and the courier with Vol Solitaire's trophy for winning the Future Champion Novices' Chase at Ayr was there. That just devastated her."

Now Strong Flow has put Barry Marshall up on the high wire once again. On one side is a conservatism which tells him that the horse must not be pushed. On the other, the image of the six-year-old's Hennessy rout and the theory that his time might already be here.

"I would prefer him not to be rushed, but he's taken the race well in his stride. He won at Kelso blindingly easily, at Newton Abbot over a trip short of his ideal, and then in the Hennessy he did not have to use all the gears either. We don't know how much more potential there is on top of what we've already seen on display."

Not much more is needed. It may be that the high road beckons for Strong Flow, the King George VI Chase followed by the Cheltenham Gold Cup. They are of particular interest to Barry Marshall and Paul Nicholls and no inconsequence either to a training neighbour of the Ditcheat man.

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