Two days before the long-range coup on Joly Bey for the Hennessy Gold Cup was supposed to unfold, the masterplan came crashing down yesterday. The Newbury jewel had been the target for Nick Gifford's chaser virtually since the horse himself collided with Merseyside real estate when leading in the Topham Chase at Aintree last spring. But Joly Bey has now also run into a low-grade plague.
"We scoped as we always do as a precaution and it came up dirty," Gifford said about the ante-post second favourite yesterday. "It's sickening and I'm gutted. Although the results weren't all that bad we have to put the horse's welfare first."
Joly Bey's absence meant a contraction in price for several of the 14 which remain after yesterday's declaration stage, a field headed by the French-trained First Gold. François Doumen's near veteran will be having a first handicap start in Britain and will have to shoulder top weight of 11st 12lb by virtue of wins in such races as the King George VI Chase and Martell Cup.
Celestial Gold, from the Martin Pipe stable, is now down to 9-4 favourite from an opening point of 16-1, as potential rivals, including those from his own yard, have dropped away. The six-year-old's success in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Open meeting two weeks ago was just his sixth start under Rules and he attempts to become the first horse since Bright Highway in 1980 to complete this particular big-race double. Several have tried unsuccessfully in the interim.
The cutlass has also been out for the Irish challenger, Nil Desperandum, who now stands at around 4-1 from a summit of 25-1. Frances Crowley's runner, the mount of Mick Fitzgerald, won the Drinmore Novices' Chase at Fairyhouse 12 months ago before injury intervened. According to the markets, inactivity has not diminished him.
Among the others among the upper reaches of the betting are Howard Johnson's potentially useful Lord Transcend, Paul Nicholls's recent Wincanton scorer Royal Auclair and the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained novice Ollie Magern.
Perhaps the most confused horse in the £120,000 contest will be Hughie Morrison's Frenchman's Creek, who made his comeback from a 937-day absence from the racecourse to take on Best Mate at Exeter last week and who now looks set for a quick return. Horseraces, Robert Thornton's mount might consider, are a little like buses.
Ireland also have a numerically challenged but athletically gifted representation for Newcastle's big-race contribution for the weekend, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Noel Meade's Harchibald shocked Back In Front and Macs Joy in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown 12 days ago and Ireland's champion trainer sees him as a Champion Hurdler in the making.
That is not to say tomorrow's event - run as a Grade One for the first time - will be presented to Harchibald on a crimson cushion. There are race specialists to consider. The Jonjo O'Neill-trained Intersky Falcon, who won the race two years ago and finished third last time, picks up his shield for the first occasion this season, while The French Furze is already battle sharpened following a victory at Ayr. Nicky Richards's representative repelled all comers here a year ago and has also been runner-up in the race three times.
¿ The jockey Seamus Durack and trainer John Tuck were yesterday exonerated from wrongdoing in the running of Bekstar in a handicap hurdle at Fontwell in September. The horse finished fifth, before going on to win at Wincanton on her next start. The disciplinary panel of the Jockey Club were satisfied that the pair had ensured that Bekstar had obtained the best possible placing in the Fontwell race.
¿ The Jockey Club is to freeze dope-test samples which will be tested retrospectively when the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory has developed improved ways of detecting prohibited substances. "The aim is to increase the deterrent to the use of prohibited substances," said Dr Peter Webbon, Jockey Club director of veterinary science.
Hennessy Gold Cup (Newbury, tomorrow) Ladbrokes: 9-4 Celestial Gold, 4-1 Nil Desperandum, 6-1 Lord Transcend, Ollie Magern, 7-1 Royal Auclair, 14-1 Frenchman's Creek, Gunther McBride, 16-1 First Gold, 25-1 Puntal, 33-1 Lord Of The River, Midland Flame, Swansea Bay, 40-1 Artic Jack, Supreme Glory.