The Danoli miracle

Sue Montgomery assesses the hopes for a horse coming back from calamity
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IF DANOLI wins the big race at Leopardstown today he will be hailed by the Irish nation that holds him as a folk hero. But the real miracle will be that he ran at all. The eight-year-old gelding's glittering career looked over when he fractured a leg winning at Aintree nine months ago, but against all the odds he takes his place in the field for the Irish Champion Hurdle this afternoon.

All of Ireland will be willing Danoli on. But his trainer Tom Foley, the quiet man from the hills of Co Carlow, is hoping only that the star of his small stable comes back in one piece. "All we want is that he enjoys himself," he said. "He will tell us himself if we should soldier on with him, or call it a day. Whatever happens, he owes us nothing."

Danoli emerged from obscurity two years ago to take on and beat the big battalions in Cheltenham's novice championship, the Sun Alliance Hurdle. The moment last year when he gained his revenge on his arch-rival Dorans Pride in the Martell Aintree Hurdle was a sweet one for Foley and the gelding's owner, Dan O'Neill. But it swiftly turned sour when their hero pulled up lame and spent weeks in a Liverpool veterinary hospital with three screws holding his off-foreleg together.

The reaction of the Irish racing public, who had taken Foley and his horse to their hearts, was extraordinary. Get-well cards flooded in by the sackful. "We even got a card from a Danoli fan in Rome telling us he would get the Pope to say a Mass for the horse," Foley said.

Danoli's road to recovery was long and slow; lots of swimming, to keep the weight off his injured leg, and then steady walking and trotting. The X-rays were encouraging, though it was expected that even if he did come back he would miss the whole season. But the vet who operated advised that inactivity could do more harm than good.

"With Danoli's type of injury, there is the risk of arthritis setting in, and during the frosty weather over Christmas we knew he was experiencing some pain," Foley said. "Keeping a horse in his condition on the move is important, and after the latest X-rays we got the go-ahead to kick on with his training."

Danoli has not jumped a hurdle since that fateful day at Aintree, and since his regular jockey Charlie Swan has been claimed for Hotel Minella today, 20-year-old Tommy Treacey, who won on the horse as a novice, deputises. But Foley is not unduly worried: "He loves jumping and will try his heart out, but I would not advise anyone to back him. He's been back in strong work only a few weeks and is a long way short of being fully fit."

Montelado, the Cheltenham second favourite, was last seen out when winning the Irish Cesarewitch on the Flat at the Curragh in October and will be having his first outing over hurdles in Ireland for nearly three years. Collier Bay and Absalom's Lady attempt to give Britain its first success in the Grade One contest since Royal Derbi sprang a 14-1 surprise three years ago.

But I will row in with Swan and Aiden O'Brien's classy Hotel Minella, whose novice chasing career has been put on hold in the hope that he can prove himself a genuine hurdles contender, and will strip fully fit after his seasonal debut three weeks ago.