Racing: Strong Flow leads challenge to Best Mate's superiority

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The Independent Online

At around 3.23pm, last 18 March, Best Mate was at the peak of his renown. He had just emulated Arkle and Cottage Rake as a three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and cheers were ringing around Prestbury Park. A most glorious place in National Hunt annals seemed assured.

At around 3.23pm, last 18 March, Best Mate was at the peak of his renown. He had just emulated Arkle and Cottage Rake as a three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and cheers were ringing around Prestbury Park. A most glorious place in National Hunt annals seemed assured.

Yet even before the horses had stopped steaming that day the cavillers were at work. A snap opinion was that it was a poor Blue Riband in form terms, a belief which has transpired to have some credence. But for Best Mate it has got worse.

The seasonal reappearance, at Exeter, of Henrietta Knight's gelding was rather stodgy. A short-head defeat of Seebald was no reason for cartwheels. As others began to turn in more persuasive efforts, Best Mate was relegated to officially the fifth-best chaser in training.

All the time, the chorus of those dismayed by Best Mate's infrequent appearances at the track grew louder. They could be abated, as long as the horse kept winning. On 28 December, at Leopardstown, he stopped doing that. Beef Or Salmon beat him in the Lexus Chase.

Best Mate returned to West Lockinge Farm carrying a cough and pulled muscles in his shoulder. He will remain in his lair, licking his wounds, until 18 March once again, and an attempt on a fourth Gold Cup on a fourth day of a new-look Festival.

The script of a great hero falling before finally achieving redemption is not one that ever bores novelists or film-makers, and it will be the central theme in the Cotswolds this spring.

There were a potential 39 spoilers of the story at yesterday's entry stage for the Gold Cup. Best Mate remains the favourite, at around 3-1, but there are an ominous number of plausible candidates beginning to form behind him.

Michael Hourigan's Beef Or Salmon is in there, as is last year's Gold Cup runner-up, Sir Rembrandt, who has an even better-fancied stablemate at Robert Alner's yard in Kingscliff. The latter was runner-up in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day to Kicking King, who also gets an entry from Tom Taaffe.

Perhaps most intriguing was the appearance of the name Strong Flow, one of five from Paul Nicholls's Ditcheat stables. The runaway winner of last year's Hennessy Gold Cup, the winner of five of his six starts over fences, Strong Flow has not run since injuring himself in victory in the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton a year ago.

Recent noises from Somerset suggest that the eight-year-old is back to something like his shining best and he is made available for public appraisal in a handicap hurdle at Warwick on Saturday.

Martin Pipe, who has yet to win the Festival showpiece, has Celestial Gold, Our Vic, Therealbandit and Tiutchev in the mix, while the third of the leading Somerset trainers, Philip Hobbs, anticipates that One Knight will be on song for the big one. The 2003 Royal & SunAlliance Chase winner is back on the gallops after a minor back problem forced him to miss the Welsh National.

"Hopefully, he'll be ready for the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham," Hobbs said yesterday. "If not then there's a conditions chase at Wincanton in February [the Country Gentleman's Association Chase]."

There are just 19 entries for the other great championship race over fences at the Festival, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but at least the two most important are among them. Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop are building a compelling rivalry, not least because they represent the pride of different countries.

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