16 January 2005

Strong Flow had only finished third and there was just a smattering of applause as he came back to Warwick’s unsaddling enclosure. But it’s difficult to clap with your fingers crossed and this performance, his first appearance since Boxing Day 2003, was more than a comeback. It could well be the first step to Gold Cup glory.

If racehorses are to hit the heights they have first to hit you in the eye. Strong Flow’s destruction of the 2003 Hennessy Gold Cup field at Newbury was one of those retina-bashing moments; his limping away from his next victory at Kempton, one of the season’s worst disappointments. It was diagnosed as a knee fracture. They are the worst. Remember Paul Gascoigne? What a chaser he would have been if he hadn’t damaged his knee in that Cup final.

But now it’s not impossible. Yesterday’s performance has to be put into the context that Paul Nicholls did not get Strong Flow back to his yard until the first day of October. For the first month all the veterinary advice was walking exercise. Cantering did not start until November. Yesterday was Jan 15. No racehorse can be fully fit after serious injury in 2½ months. In the paddock you could see it.

Strong Flow carried himself as big and tall as we remembered. But there was a ring-rusty unease about the way he held his head, a tell-tale spume of nervous sweat between his hind legs, a slight blurring of the muscle definition across his loins and hindquarters as visual evidence of his 386-day absence from the track. “He is only about six kilos above his racing weight of last season,” said Nicholls before yesterday’s race. “He really needs another fortnight but I have to get a run into him. For the Gold Cup he must win the Aon Chase at Newbury in a month. If he is in the first five today and sound everything will be fine.”

It made for an odd sort of race-watching. The three mile one furlong Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, for all its generous sponsorship and £14,000 prize money, would not normally feature too highly on the interest scale. What’s more, as the gutsy Majestic led the 14-runner field on their 12-flight journey it was not to the front that we looked. It was to jockey Ruby Walsh’s orange jacket on Strong Flow right at the back of the field. How was he handling it? How, after all the months of rehabilitation, was the knee standing up?

The answer was “pretty well.” At this time of year the back straight at Warwick is the sort of place you can lose your gumboots in. But when Walsh began to squeeze Strong Flow into action he picked up his field handily enough. Turning into the straight he was part of the five-strong leading group. For a moment he flattered at the second last but running to the final flight he was clearly held as the super industrious Celtic Son gave the trainerjockey Martin Pipe-Timmy Murphy combination their fourth victory from five runs in the last fortnight.

It was a kid-glove comeback. Walsh pulled his whip out to demand a full effort into and over that last obstacle. His partner buckled down but the sharpness that comes from complete conditioning was missing. “He actually seemed a bit green,” said Walsh afterwards, “took his time to respond. That’s ring-rusty. He did great.”

Thirteen months ago stablelass Julie Fowler led Strong Flow away from the Kempton winner’s enclosure with a rapidly sinking heart. The horse had jumped unaccountably badly and now his walk seemed wrong. By the time she got to the stables the knee problem became all too apparent. Now he towed her away with a blitheness which she and the rest of the Nicholls team will be praying to be permanent.

The comeback trail was not confined to Strong Flow. When last seen L’Ami was taking the mother of all falls at Kempton on Boxing Day. But back injuries and black eyes behind him, he was hugely impressive in the novice chase as was jockey Graham Lee with his own back-from-injury double on the Howard Johnson pair Island Faith and No Refuge. The latter is still in the transitional stage from hard-pulling Flat racer to cool-jumping hurdler, but he has such an engine that a Cheltenham target should not be beyond him.

The same could be said with a vengeance for the six -year-old Oscar Park, who beat the Lee-ridden Lennon in the closing National Hunt Flat race. “They could be first and second in the Cheltenham bumper,” was Walsh’s verdict and he is not a bad judge. Neither is Nigel Twiston-Davies when it comes to looking for targets for his emerging young chasers and he had one of his best thought out successes when the novice Baron Windrush outgunned a cluster of much more experienced rivals in the long distance Totesport Classic Chase.

Baron Windrush has not been foot perfect at his fences in the past but now he is getting his act together he represents that most enviable of forces – an improving performer with youth on his side. Twiston-Davies and jockey Carl Llewellyn have both won Grand Nationals. Don’t leave the Baron out of it.

But those are longer dreams. The most pressing hope remains with the big handsome horse whose nerves were showing with those flecks of paddock sweat yesterday. Strong Flow is back. The nerves now will be from Nicholls and his team as they check him out these next few mornings. If he comes through this the confidence will flood into horse and supporters alike. Nicholls is as bright as he is accomplished and his verdict was admirable in its directness. “I am chuffed to bits,” he said.

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