The normally cheery O'Neill was understandably subdued, despite Fire Dragon's splendid display in the valuable Grade Two contest, but the Irishman is ever a realist. "The poor horse had cantered away only 20 yards and his leg smashed at the ankle," he said of Lingo. "We'd been looking forward so much to Cheltenham with him and everyone at the yard is in bits. It was a sickener, but what can you say? That's life and that's racing. Hard games."
Lingo's loss has resolved the dilemma of the stable jockey, Tony McCoy, over his Champion Hurdle mount in the grimmest possible way. The way is now clear for the Ulsterman to resume his partnership with the Irish-trained Brave Inca, on whom he won a Grade One at Leopardstown a week ago. Colm Murphy's charge has hardened to 15-8 favourite for the Festival showpiece.
But the run-up to the race, and to Cheltenham itself, continues to be an unhappy one. Lingo is the third high-profile, high-class, horse to die, after Rooster Booster and Best Mate, while Harchibald, Feathard Lady, Kicking King and Trabolgan are sidelined by injury.
Fire Dragon earned a ticket for the stayers' crown, the World Hurdle, with his determined all-the-way success. It was an inspired ride by McCoy, who took the race to his rivals from the off and calculated his reserves on Gay Smith's little five-year-old to perfection, with a driven-out two-length success over Mighty Man. "He did everything right," said O'Neill appreciatively. "It was great to watch."
Luck, good and bad, played its part through the day. Royal Shakespeare looked booked for second place as clear leader Fiepes Shuffle headed towards the final obstacle in the two-mile Listed hurdle. But the German raider tumbled, leaving Royal Shakespeare to outbattle unconsidered Alph up the steep run-in.
"Maybe the track owes him one," Steve Gollings, the winning trainer, said, referring to the gelding's fall here last April when in the process of beating Rooster Booster, "and maybe he would have won anyway. The other horse's fall looked a tired one."
Tom Scudamore, in the saddle, was wearing less rose-tinted spectacles. "When I turned for home I was going nowhere," he admitted, "but he is good and tough, so who knows?"
If Royal Shakespeare was arguably fortunate, Napolitan definitely was as he continued Paul Nicholls's progress towards a first trainers' championship in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices' Chase to give McCoy a double. The five-year-old had been overhauled between the last two fences by Turpin Green, who then jinked and tried to refuse at the last, to the stupefaction of his rider, Tony Dobbin.
Turpin Green scrambled over in Napolitan's wake and was only a neck down at the end. "Yes, we were lucky," said a relieved Nicholls. "But credit to the little horse."
Dobbin was handed a one-day ban after he smacked Turpin Green in anger on the walk back to unsaddle.
Napolitan's Festival target will be the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, where he may meet Halcon Genelardais, who showed that his bloodless defeat of the faller Iris's Gift at Warwick was no fluke as he came home an impressive winner at Wetherby. Another top novice, Racing Demon, puts his reputation on the line at Chepstow today.
The Victor Chandler Chase, transferred with the Cleeve Hurdle from last week's abandoned Cheltenham card, proved a benefit for the Brown family, as husband Bill's Tysou beat wife Tracy's Dempsey.
The meeting at Uttoxeter was abandoned after both the course doctors accompanied the jockey Robert Stephens, badly hurt in a fall from Titian Flame, to hospital, leaving the meeting with insufficient medical cover.
BETS OF THE DAY
Two Miles West (Chepstow 3.45) was unlucky not to be closer in a graded contest at Cheltenham and represents top-class novice form.
Fifth in a better race under an amateur last time, Golly (Chepstow 2.00) can get each-way punters out of a jam this time.