Racing: Strong Flow ready to be unleashed

Any trainer will tell you that the miracle about racing is not that a horse wins a race, but that the damn thing gets to the track in the first place.

Any trainer will tell you that the miracle about racing is not that a horse wins a race, but that the damn thing gets to the track in the first place. For all the fact that a thoroughbred represents half-a-ton of powerful, purpose-bred athleticism, many of the breed are brittle enough in body and mind, more than adept at sieving the air for cold germs, treading on the one stone on the training gallop, bruising things, chipping things, breaking things.

One of last season's most exciting prospects, Strong Flow, is scheduled to return to action on Saturday after more than a year off. He hurt himself during his last moment of glory, having cracked a bone in his left knee in the process of winning the Feltham Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day 2003, a race he took after running away with the Hennessy Gold Cup. A three mile one furlong handicap hurdle at Warwick has been chosen for his first step on the road to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The knee of the horse - actually the equivalent of the human wrist joint - is complex, containing seven small carpal bones packed neatly together and Strong Flow's road back has required time and patience. He spent five months, with his leg strapped up, in his box at Nicholls's Manor Farm under the devoted care of his lass, Lorraine Morris, a period at a Newmarket veterinary hospital, where he had floating chips of bone removed by keyhole surgery, then a month recuperating with his owner, Barry Marshall.

Strong Flow rejoined Nicholls on 1 October, seemingly as keen as ever, but Saturday will show if any physical or mental blocks remain. "Since we got him to the stage of cantering again, he has done a great deal of steady work," said Nicholls yesterday. "He's been doing four up the hill, which we rarely do, three times a week. He's been on the walker for a couple of hours a day. He's been out in the paddock cantering non-stop for 20 minutes. But we've not put him under any sharp pressure, he's just done the one piece of fast work, and reports of him flying up the gallops are rather an exaggeration.

"But he looks fantastic, big and strong and well, and his weight is pretty good, though obviously this race on Saturday will bring him on. We've schooled him over the eight baby fences and he jumped them perfectly."

The eight-year-old will be ring-rusty on his comeback, but his day of days is not intended to be until 18 March anyway. "If Michael Owen fractured his knee you couldn't expect him to be at his sharpest on his first game back," added Nicholls. "It's the same with Strong Flow. This race will bring him on for the Aon Chase next month, which will bring him on for the Gold Cup. I shall be surprised if he wins on Saturday, but delighted if he does."

Strong Flow has been backed down to as low as 9-1 fourth favourite behind Best Mate, Beef Or Salmon and Kingscliff for the Cheltenham showpiece. It was announced yesterday that Gold Cup day is now a sell-out in all enclosures.

Nick Henderson is a man who has been adept at bringing horses to their peak for the Festival, with a record there second only to Martin Pipe among current trainers. He has been enduring a torrid time recently because of the effects of a low-grade viral infection in his yard, but then again he would probably rather have a dull time of it in January than in March.

But Papini, a Festival contender, gave Seven Barrows a lift at Newbury yesterday with a gritty half-length success in the opening juvenile hurdle, for which he started favourite. He was only the stable's second winner of the year from 21 runners, and its first for nine days. "He stays, is a battler and I hope we can run him in that new juvenile novices' handicap hurdle," Henderson said.

On the same card Pole Star, third in the 2003 Ascot Gold Cup, laid down his credentials for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle with a cruising seven-length success in the staying novices' contest. "He's been rejuvenated by jumping," said trainer James Fanshawe of the seven-year-old.

* A charity auction of nominations to Coolmore Stud's 50 stallions standing in Ireland, the USA and Australia raised $2.2m (£2m) for the tsunami disaster relief effort, with the fund, to be given to the Red Cross, topped up to $3.5m (£2.9m) by an anonymous donation. Top bid was €300,000 (£210,000) from Juddmonte Farms for a service by the 24-year-old, 14-times champion sire Sadler's Wells.

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