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Racing: Feathard Lady latest Festival absentee

That the Cheltenham grandstand was used as a troop hospital during the first world war is becoming increasingly appropriate. Feathard Lady, one-time favourite for the Champion Hurdle, is the latest high-profile contender for one of the Cheltenham Festival races to limp out of contention.

The unbeaten mare injured a leg two weeks ago and yesterday her trainer, Colm Murphy, conceded he had lost the battle to get her ready for Cheltenham.

Feathard Lady announced her arrival among the élite with a 12-length trouncing of a couple of decent yardsticks in Self Defense and Royal Shakespeare in the Christmas Hurdle at Sandown.

Since she sprained a hind fetlock joint, medical bulletins have ranged from guarded to reasonably optimistic and the syndicate-owned six-year-old remained prominent in the bookmakers' lists.

"She doesn't take much to get her fit, but we needed to get her back into work this week," said Murphy, "and that is not going to happen. On veterinary advice we've decided we're not going to make it to Cheltenham." The next engagement in Feathard Lady's diary is a local one. "The plan will be to get her back on the track for the Punchestown festival," added Murphy.

Had she been fit, Feathard Lady would have had her second outing in Grade One company on Sunday, in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, but Murphy's Co Wexford base still has a top-notch candidate in the more rugged shape of Brave Inca. The eight-year-old failed by about an inch to take the Dublin track's prize 12 months ago, splitting the winner Macs Joy and Hardy Eustace in a finish so close that his rider, Barry Cash, thought he had won.

And since finishing within half a length of Hardy Eustace when third in the Champion Hurdle on his next run, Brave Inca has not been beaten over two miles under his current pilot, Tony McCoy. His latest success was a three-length defeat of another notable Cheltenham absentee, Harchibald, at Sunday's venue last month on ground softer than ideal.

"He's very well," said Murphy after watching his charge. "He did a very nice piece of work. The better the ground, the better chance he will have. He doesn't seem to travel and jump so well on heavy or testing ground."

The ground at Leopardstown is currently yielding to soft. As well as the big three from last year, yesterday's other entries include Golden Cross and the veteran The French Furze. On the same card three of the most promising young two-mile fencers in Ireland may clash in the first of the season's top-level contests named after the paragon of chasers, born 49 years ago. The last winner of the Arkle Challenge Cup to go on to score in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham was Klairon Davies 11 years ago. Justified and Missed That are probable runners and Nickname a possible.

And still with novices, Paul Nicholls intends to send Denman, favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, back to Cheltenham on Saturday for his final Festival prep.

Chris McGrath

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