Draborgie, widely regarded as one of the bankers for next week's Cheltenham Festival, may have to miss the meeting. Martin Pipe, her trainer, confirmed yesterday evening that the mare, who was as short as 7-4 for her intended target, the Arkle Trophy, has had a setback.
Downbeat rumours about the mare's well-being came on racing's bush telegraph through the afternoon, prompting Coral, William Hill and Ladbrokes to suspend betting on the race.
Later, Pipe confirmed: "Draborgie worked this morning and did pull out a little bit stiff from her box, and we are reviewing the situation, it is as simple as that.
"We have got to wait and see how she gets on. We are never happy when things like this happen, but we will leave it until the day before the race before making a decision."
David Hood, of William Hill, reported: "There is no confidence in Draborgie in the betting market and there is also substantial support for those directly behind her in the market.
"We thought she would not run if there was fast ground at the Festival but there now seems some doubt as to whether she will run at all."
Rob Hartnett of Coral, added: "At Sandown, the racecourse was simply swimming in rumours about her. Bookmakers, trainers, everybody was talking about her. If she had been a 14-1 or 16-1 shot, you wouldn't have to worry too much, but given her position at the head of the market, we had no option but to suspend betting."
Another absentee will be one of the great constants of the modern Festival, Jodami. He will miss Thursday's Gold Cup because of a bacterial infection. Peter Beaumont's gelding has taken part in the last three runnings of the Blue Riband, succeeding at the first attempt in 1993 and finishing second to The Fellow the following year. He will now be prepared for the Grand National at Aintree on 30 March, when he will be required to carry top weight, following Master Oats's with- drawal from the race.
In the other main Cheltenham races, Viking Flagship was eased to 13-8 from 6-4 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase as the fast-ground performers Strong Platinum, Travado and Coulton came in for support. The money was also flying for Hotel Minella in the Champion Hurdle, for which he is a 9-2 chance (from 6-1).
Among the other contestants for hurdling's crown is Collier Bay, who, last year, won this afternoon's feature race, Sandown's Imperial Cup. This year's running features an animal who has already had a profound effect on the Festival, Eskimo Nel. When she fell at Newbury last month she took down with her Norman Williamson. The jockey who completed the rare big-race double last year (on Alderbrook and Master Oats) dislocated his right shoulder in the accident, an injury which recurred on the gallops a week ago, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
The smaller targets at Esher today also have a significance on Cheltenham races. The front-running grey Senor El Betrutti is among the Cathcart Chase entries, but comes up against only three opponents here.
Later on, General Rusty, Charlie Mann's hopeful entry in the Sun Alliance Chase and the Gold Cup itself tackles some names that used to belong to the Festival, namely King Credo, Buck Willow and Cuddy Dale.
General Rusty is to be ridden by Richard Dunwoody, who, along with Tony McCoy, will be spending as much time in make-up as in the jockeys' room this afternoon. The Irish riders will be making their way from Chepstow after the BBC's televised events to the Channel 4-screened Sandown card.
CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, Tuesday): Ladbrokes: 10-11 Alderbrook, 9- 2 Danoli, Hotel Minella, 6-1 Mysilv, 12-1 Collier Bay, 20-1 Land Afar, Mack The Knife & Squire Silk, 25-1 Right Win, 50-1 others; Tote: 10-11 Alderbrook, 5-1 Danoli, Hotel Minella, 7-1 Mysilv, 12-1 Collier Bay, 20- 1 Mack The Knife 25-1 Land Afar, Squire Silk, 40-1 others.
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE (Cheltenham, Wednesday): Ladbrokes: 13-8 Viking Flagship, 2-1 Sound Man, 7-2 Strong Platinum, 10-1 Klairon Davis, 12-1 Travado, 14-1 Coulton, 33-1 Martin's Lamp, 50-1 Dancing Paddy. Tote: 6-4 Viking Flagship, 5-2 Sound Man, 7-2 Strong Platinum, 8-1 Klairon Davis, 10-1 Travado, 16-1 Coulton, 33-1 Martin's Lamp, Dancing Paddy.
GOLD CUP (Cheltenham, Thursday): Ladbrokes: 5-4 One Man, 4-1 Imperial Call, 11-2 Dublin Flyer, 7-1 Monsieur Le Cure & Rough Quest, 12-1 Couldnt Be Better, 20-1 Barton Bank, 50-1 others. Tote: 5-4 One Man, 9-2 Imperial Call, 5-1 Dublin Flyer, 9-1 Rough Quest, 10-1 Monsieur Le Cure, 12-1 Couldnt Be Better, 16-1 Barton Bank, 25-1 others.