30 November 2003

Losing can be done in a moment, winning takes the whole stretch. The brilliant novice Strong Flow destroyed what was left of his rivals over the last two fences of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury, but the real opposition was snatched away before the race was 30 seconds old.

Twenty-one runners paraded for the 47th running of this jewel in the chasing crown. At last a field in both numbers and quality to rank high in its history and at least three horses, One Knight, Sir Rembrandt and Strong Flow, still so full of promise that the Gold Cup at Cheltenham could be a realistic target.

One Knight’s defeat of Jair Du Cochet at Cheltenham last March was given the perfect franking when the French colt left Best Mate himself leaden-footed and rusty in his wake at Huntingdon last week. But it was also remarkable for the amount of damage inflicted on the Cheltenham birch by One Knight’s faulty fencing. An impetuous lunge before the start yesterday made you wonder if his head was yet together. A failure to rise at the first confirmed it.

“He just didn’t,” said a bruised and battered Richard Johnson afterwards. There were other words left unsaid – “big, ignorant, b******” would be the gist of them. But if One Knight deserved a touch of shock treatment, Sir Rembrandt’s fate two fences later was a less deserved penalty. “I avoided the carnage at the first,” said Andrew Thornton, thinking back to Take A Stand being brought down by the somersaulting One Knight, “we jumped the next two beautifully but on landing over the third he just knuckled over.”

Looking at Sir Rembrandt’s almost old-fashioned hunter-style bulk and balance beforehand you would have thought it would take a thick piece of cable to turn him over. But out he and One Knight were and up front a fierce gallop for these rain-soaked conditions was set by Tom’s Prize and the Irish mare Be My Belle.

Tom’s Prize kept up a pace which gave a remarkable 6 min 37 sec final time for the 21-fence, 3¼ -mile journey, but as the field swept down to the cross fence with just the straight and four more obstacles ahead of them the big guns were closing. Strong Flow had belted the third fence in the straight first time around and at this cross fence it was the fancied Irish Hussar who attempted something of a one-horse demolition job.

Swinging off the final turn and Irish challengers Barrow Drive and particularly Hedgehunter looked major dangers, the black and white hoops of Joss Naylor were in contention and Ruby Walsh still had plenty of horse beneath him on Strong Flow. Over the last ditch, three fences from home, and it was a three-way fight between Joss Naylor, Hedgehunter and Strong Flow. A big, bold leap by Strong Flow at the penultimate obstacle gave him the legs of his rivals and as he galloped on towards the last fence right in front of us only a capsize could defeat him.

Strong Flow is a marvellously athletic horse, indeed his pasterns and fetlock joints are almost freakishly dipped. As he accelerates he flattens down in the effort. Close up yesterday, with no obvious take-off stride, it was almost too exciting to watch. “He quickened up so much that I was going to the last much faster than I wanted,” explained Ruby Walsh afterwards. “I was trying to get hold of him to make him think. Right on the fence he came back a fraction and got over.”  One Knight ought to have the film as an instructional video back in Somerset.

As a novice, the six-year-old Strong Flow’s Cheltenham target is the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, which last March was the One Knight-Jair Du Cochet showdown. Bookmakers already have him short priced favourite as trainer Paul Nicholls’ present plans are not to tilt at the Gold Cup until 2005. But the very fact that the Gold Cup is a target at all is significant enough. Best Mate’s supporters saw a real contender to their champion appear last week. Here, unless impressions are much mistaken, is another.

What’s more, Strong Flow comes from precisely the same Co Clare nursery in the splendidly named Newmarket-on-Fergus which produced Best Mate on his road to glory two years earlier. Tom Costello’s family operation has seen at least six graduates win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and yesterday his son Tony was ticking off another half dozen who have taken Hennessy honours.

Tony himself was aboard Strong Flow when the then five-year-old won on his only point-to-point appearance at Askeaton in Limerick two springs ago. “We got him as a foal,” said Tony. “We also had Hedgehunter [who was a gallant fourth yesterday behind Joss Naylor and Take Control] but this horse always had speed. I can remember,” he added his face alight, “I can remember the spring in him.”

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