Racing: Inglis Drever joins the growing casualty list

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The front page of this newspaper yesterday disclosed that Britons entered the new year £1.13 trillion in debt. The nightmare endured by ante-post punters during its first three days, however, will persuade some of them to treat that figure as highly conservative.

While the name of Inglis Drever may not have quite the same magnetic quality as those of Kicking King or Harchibald, the announcement yesterday that he would miss the Cheltenham Festival means that the bookmakers have now scratched three championship favourites in successive days. Following the deaths of Best Mate and Rooster Booster, this has become the most abominable of winters for jump racing.

Like Kicking King, Inglis Drever has injured a tendon, and neither is expected to run before next Christmas. Having usurped Baracouda in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle last year, Inglis Drever had made a seamless resumption when beating the same horse at Newbury in November. But he ran deplorably at Chepstow nine days ago, already well beaten when falling at the second last, and yesterday his trainer, Howard Johnson, was finally able to tell his owner why.

"He has had a lot of hard races, and we think the problem might have surfaced after Newbury," Graham Wylie said. "That would explain why he wasn't travelling very well at Chepstow, and that run could have aggravated it even more. He seemed fine at the weekend, apart from a little swelling on his leg, which we thought was no more than bruising. We had him scanned today and there is a hole in his tendon, so we will have to get him sorted out."

As one of the owner's three Festival winners last year, Inglis Drever had blessed Wylie with a remarkably smooth induction into a business full of pitfalls. Fortunately, the biggest new spender on the scene retains the services of the other pair, and one of them will now apply for the vacancy created by Inglis Drever. In Coral's book No Refuge now shares 4-1 favouritism for Cheltenham with Baracouda and Rhinestone Cowboy. The other, Arcalis, may run at Haydock on 21 January, but if the ground is unsuitable he will go straight to the Smurfit Champion Hurdle.

Johnson placed that caveat in context when reflecting on the injury suffered by Inglis Drever. "He strained a tendon pulling out of the ground we have at the moment," the trainer said. "These horses are all working on artificial surfaces. We are using Polytrack and Waxfibre gallops, and it is different when these horses are going out on to these tracks, which are a gluepot, and it is all strain on them."

Inglis Drever, Harchibald and Kicking King had all run over Christmas, and their problems since are instructive in the basic attrition that afflicts the sport. "Anyone who trains jumpers needs his head examined," one very experienced trainer told me yesterday. "I used to have jumpers, but it's impossible to keep them sound. I was once told by one of the top trainers that only 10 to 15 per cent of his horses broke down, but he must either be a miracle worker or very bad at maths."

While the present sequence of macabre tidings approaches the surreal, nobody should be deceived that better horses are more fragile. If anything the careers of recent champions such as Istabraq, Moscow Flyer and Best Mate show the intimacy between physical equilibrium and athletic achievement. Press and public seldom stray beneath the tip of the iceberg, but countless mediocre animals meet problems of their own beneath the surface.

One very obscure beast did contrive to draw attention to himself yesterday. His name was High and he was one of the wretches "contesting" the maiden claimer at a banded meeting at Southwell. He managed to catch the eye of the stewards, restrained in the rear by David McCabe before staying on into midfield in the straight. Concluding that he had been ridden with inadequate purpose, they fined Willie Musson, his trainer, £1,250, suspended the jockey for 12 days and the horse himself for 40.