Frailty, thy name is horse. Kicking King, the Gold Cup winner, is the season's latest high-profile casualty; he has injured a leg and will neither be defending his title at Cheltenham in March nor running again during the campaign. The eight-year-old's trainer, Tom Taaffe, announced the bad news yesterday, saying: "He has strained a tendon and, on veterinary advice, myself and owner Conor Clarkson have decided the horse will not run in the Gold Cup. His target is now the 2007 race and I would like to think we'll get him back on the track by Christmas."
The defection of Kicking King, who confirmed his status as the best staying chaser in these islands by adding a second King George VI Chase to his CV at Sandown on Boxing Day and had been 7-4 favourite for a repeat at the Festival, is another blow to not only ante-post punters, but to the élite chasing scene, after the death of Best Mate and the injury to the exciting rising star Trabolgan. It comes just a day after erstwhile Champion Hurdle favourite Harchibald underwent leg surgery.
Beef Or Salmon and Kingscliff are now at the head of the Gold Cup market, vying for top spot at around 5-1, with Monkerhostin, who came within a neck of beating Kicking King in the King George, third choice. "I think the injury happened at Sandown," added Taaffe. "but nothing showed up for two days.
"The good news is that the strain is in the upper third of the tendon, and they often recover well from that. He has had good healing powers in the past and I would hope he has a similar response to this. But he will definitely not be back this season."
There is a bit of previous regarding Kicking King and his fitness to take part in a Gold Cup, which led yesterday to an unprecedented move on behalf of the betting public by his connections. Three weeks before Cheltenham last year the gelding was stated an unlikely Blue Riband runner because he was suffering from a lung infection, but rose from his sickbed to win as the 4-1 favourite.
In the aftermath of his apparent removal from the fray, he was laid at 999-1 on the leading betting exchange, Betfair, and after he recovered there were accusations directed at Taaffe that he had, however unintentionally, presented a misleading impression.
Yesterday, Clarkson took steps to make sure there was no repetition by contacting Betfair before the information about his star's injury was made public. "This is the first time that connections have been in touch before news was given or leaked out," said the exchange's spokesman Tony Calvin, "and fair play to him.
"After the situation before the last Gold Cup he wanted to avoid any confusion, but to think of telling us, at a time when most owners would not have had the thoughts of punters or the public foremost at heart, reflects huge credit on him."
Betfair have placed Kicking King at the bottom of the trading list, the accepted red-alert to an injury problem, but even though there will be no Lazarus impersonation this time round - statements on his prognosis are unequivocal - there were still some backers willing to take a chance yesterday. Such is the nature of exchanges where, it seems, only death is a deterrent to optimism or greed.
"After Best Mate died," added Calvin, "we conducted a survey of our users into how they wanted us to operate our ante-post markets. Over 90 per cent wanted us to continue on a caveat emptor basis and for us to intervene only where punters profited, or attempted to profit, from a horse dying. This is now our set policy. If they want, punters can continue to trade on the chances of an injured horse."
Harchibald is very much a case in point. On Sunday, the view of his trainer, Noel Meade, was that it would take "a miracle" for the horse to make the Champion Hurdle. Yesterday, after vets removed some pieces of hurdle birch from one of his forelegs, the picture was less clear cut. Having drifted to 49-1, Harchibald was at one point down to 9.5-1.
"I don't know if he is definitely out of the Champion, we will play it day by day," said Meade. "But to keep the infection away he's going to need an awful lot of antibiotics and this has a big downing effect on anything, whether it be man or beast. They will flatten him a bit."
In a last-man-standing Gold Cup field Beef Or Salmon is the only contender with a Grade One win to his name as a senior. His Lexus Chase victory six days ago was his seventh at that level and his next outing is a tilt at another, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown next month. "He's in good order," said trainer Michael Hourigan yesterday, while expressing sympathy for his Irish rivals, the Taaffe camp. "That is the thing with horses," he added, "you just never know what will happen."