Racing: Contender Kingscliff ruled out of Gold Cup

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The Independent Online

Kingscliff, the Gold Cup second favourite, was yesterday ruled out of Thursday's Cheltenham showpiece by his trainer, Robert Alner, after failing to please in his final piece of work. "He's not quite himself," said Alner. "It is probably a recurrence of the muscle problems he sustained at Haydock last time. He's happy enough, but to run him when I am not confident that he is 100 per cent is no good to the horse, the jockey, the public, myself or the owner. He's only seven and there's always next year."

The gelding, who won the Foxhunters at last year's Festival, was the only high-profile Gold Cup absentee at yesterday's penultimate declaration stage, leaving Andrew Thornton - who notched a first winner for six weeks in the Sandown opener on the Dorset stable's Distant Thunder - to partner Sir Rembrandt.

Kingscliff inherited the second place in the market after the untimely death of Jair Du Cochet during the week. The position now passes to the novice Therealbandit, confirmed as taking his chance against his seniors. His connections, the Martin Pipe/Tony McCoy/ David Johnson team, were on the mark at Sandown yesterday with Control Man. "Even with Best Mate in the field there are still second, third and fourth places to play for," said Johnson. McCoy added: "Best Mate deserves to be odds-on, but you can never be afraid of just one horse."

Other late Cheltenham defectors include Flame Creek, a lively outsider for the Champion Hurdle, after a dirty scope, and Lingo, who had been favourite for the meeting's opening contest, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, on Tuesday. The five-year-old injured a foot yesterday and in the same race, well-fancied Irish raider Sadler's Wings may switch to the longer novices' contest, the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle on Thursday.

The underfoot conditions at Sandown yesterday were redolent of jumping, but the winner of yesterday's 87th Imperial Cup, Scorned, owes more to the élite world of the Flat. The nine-year-old, who was winning his first race over hurdles, is trained by Andrew Balding, carries the colours made famous by his Kingsclere stable's most celebrated resident, Mill Reef, and evenwon an Arc trial.

Heavy rain overnight reduced the ground at the Esher track to plough and Scorned, a 14-1 shot, took full advantage of his feather weight in the testing conditions, drawing clear of Bold Bishop (8-1), from whom he was getting 17lb, up the finishing hill for a 14-length success under Barry Fenton. Fenix (16-1) plugged on for third with Goldbrook (33-1) fourth. The late Paul Mellon bequeathed his famous black-and-gold colours to Balding's father, Ian, who bred Scorned. The nine-year-old was a decent performer on the Flat - as well as winning the Newbury Arc trial he was placed in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot - but leg trouble meant he was off the track for the whole of 2002 and 2003.

The Imperial Cup, first run in 1907, was once easily the most important hurdle prize of the season, and no pre-war Champion Hurdle winner came close in ability to Trespasser, hero of the Sandown feature from 1920-22. Nowadays the venerable contest is merely the hors d'oeuvre before the Cheltenham feast; although there is a £60,000 bonus on offer if the winner can score again at the Festival. Scorned holds an entry in both the Coral Cup and County Hurdle.

"It's tempting to go for the bonus," said Balding, "but we'll see how he is. He's a bit of a family pet and I'm more than happy with just Plan A."