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Racing: Danoli returns to linger in limelight

TWO YEARS ago, the chance to see Danoli run at a racecourse in Ireland would put thousands on to the attendance. Back in 1994, he put a hundred times as much into punters' pockets when he won the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle. He opened fetes and received bagfuls of fan mail, like Desert Orchid and Red Rum rolled into a single, brave little Irish package, until the leg injury which almost killed him seemed to stop the bandwagon in its tracks.

This Sunday, though, it could receive a burly push in the general direction of Cheltenham. Danoli will join the field for the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown, his first race since October, and a repeat of his victory in the same event two years ago would reduce the entire grandstand to tears. Even a gallant third place would be enough to send him to the Gold Cup on a wave of cash and optimism.

But like all the best heroes, Danoli has a flaw. The leg problem which has troubled him for four months is still causing concern, but at 11 years of age, this year's Gold Cup will probably be his last. If it is to remain a serious target, a run on Sunday is essential.

"We didn't intend running him for a good bit [after his seasonal debut] and the Hennessy was always the race we were planning for," Tom Foley, Danoli's trainer, said yesterday.

"We expected to run in the Ericsson Chase at Christmas, only he got a sprain on his hind fetlock and that put us back a long, long way. We've had to try and keep him working away even though it wasn't right, and take everything day to day."

The favourite for Sunday's race is Florida Pearl, who has been the natural heir to Danoli in Irish racing's affections. He seems sure to start at odds-on, despite having fallen at the same course over Christmas, but many of those who take a short price about him will probably have a small saver on Danoli too, just in case.

Foley, though, offers little encouragement, for the Hennessy at least. "I think that Florida Pearl could win on Sunday without even coming off the bridle, that's what I'd be expecting of him, anyhow. There's none of the Irish horses can touch him, and we're not expecting to be in the running at all.

"We're hoping that he runs a nice race and comes back sound, and if he does, at least we have five weeks left to prepare him for Cheltenham, and I'd be reckoning that we could put in a good run there."

But it is impossible to know how a return to competition might fire a natural performer like Danoli. "I think he knows that there's something going on," Foley says. "The television cameras were down today, and we took him to Leopardstown on Ladbroke Hurdle day to give him a little run- around, so he knows that he's getting back to racing.

"An awful lot of people enquire about him wherever I go, but the thing is that he's been so long without running that people are starting to say he'll never come back. But if he comes back and puts in a decent run, it'll be back to the same as ever.

"Florida Pearl takes the pressure off us, but I'd love to have it all back."

If Danoli makes it as far as Cheltenham, he will be the first horse on many minds. Cool Dawn, by contrast, will probably start among the outsiders, despite having actually won the Gold Cup last year. His form this season has been disappointing, but he is now recovering from treatment for crushed vertebrae in his back, sustained when he toppled over in the parade ring at Wincanton before his seasonal debut.

"It wasn't serious but it was painful when he jumped," Robert Alner, his trainer, said yesterday. "It has settled down now and he is back in full work. He is being trained for the Gold Cup, and all being well he'll go straight to Cheltenham. We are not stressing him too much, and we are hoping for fast ground again."

Mouse Morris will today confirm either Tony McCoy or Paul Carberry as Boss Doyle's rider in Sunday's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup. McCoy is favourite to take the ride on the seven-year-old.