Leg injury rules out Festival for McManus' First Gold

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For JP McManus, the First Gold gamble simply did not come off. Bought by the Irish high-flying businessman, punter and Manchester United shareholder 12 months ago, First Gold was robbed of the opportunity to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year by foot-and-mouth disease and was yesterday announced an absentee from this year's Festival because of a leg injury.

McManus' involvement with First Gold has been rather like alchemy, except in reverse. When he made the purchase from the Marquesa de Moratella last year, the gelding had just own the King George VI Chase at Kempton in dazzling fashion and was favourite to follow up in the Blue Riband at Cheltenham.

The purchase price was believed to be in excess of half a million pounds, a record sum for a racehorse severed from his reproductive spheres. With Istabraq, running in the same colours, there was talk of McManus becoming the first owner to win the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in the same season since Dorothy Paget's Roman Hackle and Solford in 1940.

Then the script got lost. First Gold went down in flames to Shotgun Willy in his Cheltenham prep and then the Festival never happened. McManus clawed back £71,000 of his costs with First Gold's win at Aintree, but when it came to the replacement Gold Cup at Sandown, the lines were fluffed again and the gelding unseated his hapless rider.

A defeat at Auteuil followed and this season the performances, and the excuses for them, became ever less convincing. First came a flop over hurdles at Newbury, where the course, the obstacles and the lack of fitness were blamed and then a dismal fourth in the King George at Kempton, the race in which he had shone so brightly a year before.

François Doumen, First Gold's trainer, suggested after that failure that perhaps there was an underlying cause and so it was proved. Yesterday the trainer issued a bulletin from his Chantilly stable saying that after consultations with McManus it was agreed to "put First Gold's programme on hold as we have to treat some leg damage that has recently got worse''.

The exact location and extent of the injury were not revealed but Doumen added: "We hope to see him again next season.''

Only just turned nine years of age and with only 23 races in the clock, there may well be more mileage in First Gold, but his attraction to punters may have disappeared – if it was ever there. Although he was the long-time market leader for two gold cups, and despite being owned by such a high-profile punter, First Gold failed to attract much public support in the betting market. "We had First Gold as 5-1 favourite for the Gold Cup through the summer and he was still favourite until the King George,'' Simon Clare, Coral's spokesman said. "But we haven't taken much money on him at all in the past nine months.

"We pushed him out to 9-1 after Kempton and even after taking him out of the betting now, the only change we've had to make in the market is to trim Looks Like Trouble to 5-1 clear favourite from 6-1 joint favourite with Best Mate.

''We've got fair liabilities on those two. Looks Like Trouble was well backed at 20-1 when his trainer talked about stepping in himself at that price, and Best Mate was being backed for this year's Gold Cup a year ago. Behrajan, Sackville and Bacchanal have also attracted plenty of money.''

Unusually then, this is one occasion when an early drop out by a big name will not have the bookies rubbing their hands together and punters nursing singed digits.

The more emotionally-led among the punting tribe may be inclined to get involved with the Mark Pitman-trained Ever Blessed, who gave an eye-catching display after a long lay-off when running well for a good way until pulling up in the Great Yorkshire Chase at Doncaster on Saturday and, like the winner of that race, Moor Lane, has been given the Grand National as his target.

Pitman, of course, has had narrow national misses with Garrison Savannah as a jockey and with Smarty as a trainer last year and has a demanding family tradition to uphold. Nevertheless, national punting should be kept in rein until after the weights are published on 5 February, when a response to attractive performances will be beyond the handicapper's reach.

Latest Cheltenham Gold Cup (14 March) betting: William Hill: 5-1 Looks Like Trouble, 6-1 Best Mate, 10-1 Bacchanal, Behrajan (from 12), Florida Pearl, Sackville, Shooting Light, 12-1 Lord Noelie, Marlborough, 14-1 Rince Ri (from 33), 20-1 Alexander Banquet, Foxchapel King, What's Up Boys, 25-1 Cyfor Malta, Legal Right, Shotgun Willy, 40-1 bar.

Coral: 5-1 Looks Like Trouble, 6-1 Best Mate, 8-1 Bacchanal, 9-1 Lord Noelie, 10-1, Shooting Light, Sackville, 12-1 Florida Pearl, Behrajan, 14-1 Marlborough, 16-1, Rince Ri, What's Up Boys, 20-1 bar.

Tote: 5-1 Looks Like Trouble, 11-2 Best Mate, 8-1 Bacchanal, Sackville, 9-1 Shooting Light, 10-1 Behrajan, Florida Pearl, 12-1 Lord Noelie, 14-1 Marlborough, Rince Ri, 16-1 Alexander Banquet, 20-1 Cyfor Malta, What's Up Boys.