Racing: Strong Flow back in Gold Cup mix

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The Independent Online

They are getting in line behind the champion. With just two months to go until the madness kicks off at Prestbury Park, yesterday saw another contender justify his claim to a crack at taking Best Mate's Cheltenham Gold Cup crown in March. Back on the course for the first time in more than a year, after a fractured knee cut short his dazzling novice-chasing season, the 2003 Hennessy hero Strong Flow proved that he can still make it over the obstacles, with a respectable third place in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle qualifier at Warwick.

They are getting in line behind the champion. With just two months to go until the madness kicks off at Prestbury Park, yesterday saw another contender justify his claim to a crack at taking Best Mate's Cheltenham Gold Cup crown in March. Back on the course for the first time in more than a year, after a fractured knee cut short his dazzling novice-chasing season, the 2003 Hennessy hero Strong Flow proved that he can still make it over the obstacles, with a respectable third place in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle qualifier at Warwick.

It was hardly an impressive performance, and will have disappointed those punters with long memories who backed him in to 15-8 favouritism, but it was a welcome reward for his trainer, Paul Nicholls, whose dedication had brought the eight-year-old back from his career-threatening injury. Strong Flow, who is being offered at 9-1 by some bookmakers for the Festival showpiece, jumped well throughout and ran all the way to the line.

Nicholls, who said before the race that his star charge would go on to the Aon Chase at Newbury, was clearly happy with yesterday's showing. "I'm absolutely delighted," he said. "I've said all along that if he was in the first six I'd be delighted. There's so much more improvement inn him. He's been off for so long and I couldn't have asked for more. I didn't come here expecting to win. Somebody said he should win if he's going to win the Gold Cup, but I can assure you that's not right. He needed to run today and he'll improve enormously. He'll come on a ton."

Victory in the three mile and one furlong race went once more to the unstoppable team of David Johnson, Martin Pipe and Timmy Murphy, with 2-1 shot Celtic Son. The Nicholashayne contender, with a massive edge in race fitness having scored four times already this season going into yesterday's race, tracked the favourite all the way and had a comfortable three lengths in hand of Touch Closer at the line. It was the same distance back to the favourite, whose last outing saw him winning the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton in 2003.

The excitement of the day came in the big race, the marathon three miles and five furlongs £115,000 Classic Chase, in which Baron Windrush got the better of a gruelling battle with D'Argent to come out on top. Nigel Twiston-Davies's seven-year-old relished the conditions and was too strong on the run-in for D'Argent, the pair having had the race to themselves with two to jump. The runner-up, who was suffering his first defeat round Warwick, looked as if he might have the upper hand over the last, but the concession of 5lb proved too much and he went down by two-and-a-half lengths. Double Honour, who had raced prominently from the off, plugged on bravely for third, some 16 lengths back.

"This horse is usually a front-runner, but with the ground as it is, Carl [Llewellyn] said he would drop him in, and he came from well behind," Twiston-Davies said. "He's still a bit novicey at his fences. He might just have a National entry but I wouldn't have thought he would run in that just yet."

While Strong Flow was establishing his Gold Cup credentials at Warwick, another Cheltenham hope was showing punters at Kempton what he could do; after an effortless victory in the three-mile novices' hurdle, William Hill clipped Gold Medallist to 3-1 favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle. Richard Johnson made all the running on the five-year-old on ground perhaps stickier than he would have appreciated, bringing the 2-7 favourite home 18 lengths clear of his nearest rival, Hot Weld.

The winning trainer, Philip Hobbs, confirmed that he was pleased with his charge's performance. "Richard got off and said that three miles in this tacky ground is not perhaps ideal, but he can do no more than win easily. He had a minor setback after his run at Exeter and missed a bit of time with a corn. There is a two-and- a-half-mile novice hurdle at Cheltenham in a fortnight and I think the experience of the track might not be a bad thing. He may just have needed this race today."

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