THE biggest crowd ever to attend a race meeting in Hongkong is expected at Sha Tin today in anticipation of local champion River Verdon winning the $4.5 million International Cup. A combined audience of 85,000 at Sha Tin and Happy Valley could be cheering home River Verdon who bids to retain the Cup - and a sizeable winner's cheque - in the sixth renewal of the most important race on the Hongkong calendar. And circumstances have combined in this troubled season to ensure that River Verdon has the best possible chance of being at his majestic peak - and ready to thwart the efforts of invaders from all over the world, all with excellent credentials. The 1,800-metre Cup race should have been run last December, but the sport had ground to a complete and unwanted halt because of the ravages of the equine influenza virus. The decision to eventually run the race today has given trainer David Hill one priceless advantage - time. River Verdon's luckless escapade to the Arlington Million took a lot out of the horse. He simply did not look the same in the six weeks following his return and there were some fears expressed at the time that he might never be quite the same again. Happily, those fears were ill-founded and River Verdon has bounced back - better than ever. He was beaten in the November running of the Stewards Cup and the signs were not necessarily good for a repeat of the 1991 Cup triumph when he beat Prudent Manner. Although he put up a sterling performance in the Stewards Cup, he was not at his peak and Hill, back then, did not have time. However, the champion escaped the virus and an entirely new campaign was mapped out which sees its climax reached today. He will have one more domestic race after the International Cup, next month's running of the Champions and Chater Cup which he will assuredly make his own. When River Verdon returned in a 1,200-metre race, he very nearly won it. That was exceptional for a horse many believe would even now be only showing his full potential at a mile and a half. It was a run that had Hill and co-owners Sir Oswald Cheung and Ronnie Arculli wreathed in smiles. It was the perfect preparatory race for the 2,000-metre Gold Cup and River Verdon's subsequent win in the second leg of the domestic Triple Crown was quite exceptional. This was an awesome display of sheer power with River Verdon giving nothing else a chance. Fellow Hongkong representative Wonderful World attempted to make all in the race and ensured a cracking pace for favourite River Verdon. When regular rider Basil Marcus unleashed the champion at the 400-metre mark he quickly got the measure of Wonderful World and went on to record an emphatic victory. Hill has since been relatively easy on his stable star, but those who saw the horse work at Sha Tin last Tuesday could not help but be impressed by the six-year-old gelding's well-being. He looked absolutely superb and the gallop, with sheer power and aggression flowing from every stride as he almost floated over the Sha Tin grass, suggested that today we will see the ultimate five-star display from a horse who has completely won the hearts of the Hongkong racing public. River Verdon was cheered from the moment he appeared on the track until his return sheathed in the winner's sash in the Gold Cup. And if he does win today, the combined cheers from over 70,000 fans will envelope Sha Tin in noise as never before. The barrier draw of five is relatively unimportant these days but Marcus will be aware that it may no longer simply be a case of coming wide and mowing them down in the run home. There are too many useful horses in this field to be taking liberties and River Verdon will have to be ridden to obtain a place in midfield and possibly not asked to do too much too soon. The North American challenge this year seems much more substantial than last time with good words spoken for both Charmonnier and the Canadian galloper, Cozzene's Prince. The latter has been particularly impressive in his morning work and, considering thedistances involved, travelled remarkably well. Popular Walter Swinburn rides the French filly Urban Sea and those proposing to back her should do so without benefit of a paddock inspection. She is just no size at all but good judges have vouched for her racing ability and, in some quarters, Urban Sea is seen as a very real threat to River Verdon. It has been a slightly troubled preparation for English challenger Mellottie, but jockey John Lowe, who rode him on Friday morning, gave an emphatic thumbs up after the work. ''I think the back problem was the result of the horse pulling up a little quickly and it was just as well that the chiropractor was there. But he is fine in himself now and ready to run a big race. ''All the main work was done on him before he left England so I am not concerned about him missing a day here,'' said Lowe. The colours of Sheik Hamdan al Maktoum will be carried at Sha Tin for the first time on the David Hayes-trained Fraar, with Melbourne champion Michael Clarke aboard. On his best Australian form he would have to be conceded a very solid quinella chance as would the New Zealand entrant, Romanee Conti. Word on the Lawrie Laxon-trained Sir Tristram four-year-old is very good and jockey Greg Childs will also have the benefit of knowing Sha Tin. He has now been here for a month on his three-month international licence. But all of them should really be in the supporting cast to the undoubted star of the multi-million dollar extravaganza, the mighty River Verdon. Everything seems to have come exactly right for River Verdon. This will be his day.