Racing: Johnson's purchases hit by virus

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Howard Johnson, the Claudio Ranieri of racing, is a worried man as an unidentified bug threatens the cheque-book might of his acquisitive owner Graham Wylie. A virus brought into the stable by one of the new purchases appears to be the most likely explanation.

The wealthy owner's Valley Henry was pulled up in the Pillar Property Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday and the effort of his talented Inching Closer met a similar conclusion when strongly fancied for the novices' chase at Wetherby yesterday. Johnson now plans to have all his horses blood-tested before further embarrassments occur.

"I think my horses must have something on them," the Crook-based trainer said at Wetherby as he struggled to find an explanation for Inching Closer's failure. "We've been getting horses come in from Ireland and here, there and everywhere, and I think something has brought something into the yard."

It may be folly to plunge on a representative of a stricken stable, but Johnson did suggest a betting proposition for those prepared to gamble that the bug will not strike again. "If Sedgefield is on and San Peire is beaten, then I will be sure something is wrong, because he should win all right," Johnson said. "We will just have to get them tested before we see what we are going to do."

Johnson has entered both Inglis Drever and Royal Rosa in the Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival but said: "Inglis Drever will go for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, but neither Chivalry nor Royal Rosa will be going to Cheltenham. I will probably have only Grattan Lodge going there as well as Inglis Drever, and maybe one of the nice four-year-olds we have."

Another Pillar Chase failure, Sir Rembrandt, is also mystifying his trainer, Robert Alner, but with his wellbeing. Despite being pulled up at Cheltenham he was so well yesterday morning that his trainer is planning a crack at Newbury's Aon Chase on 14 February, where Jair Du Cochet could again be among his rivals.

"Sir Rembrandt is absolutely sound," Alner said, "and we can't find any reason to for his Cheltenham run, so we'll crack on and aim for the Aon unless we find something to stop us over the next few days.

"Andrew [Thornton] did absolutely the right thing in pulling him up, because he wasn't to know why the horse wasn't performing up to his best. I think we shall just have to call it a one-off and hope that he can do better at Newbury.

"It's generally preferable to find some reason for a poor run, because then you can deal with it, but there's nothing to do now except try to put it behind us."

A huge array of young talent has been entered for the two novice chases at the Cheltenham Festival, the Irish Independent Arkle Chase and the Royal & SunAlliance Chase. The races have drawn entries of 42 and 64 respectively, with Thisthatandtother and Sunday's Irish winner Kicking King heading the Arkle nominations.

Nicky Henderson, who has won the two-mile contest three times before, has put in Caracciola, Chauvinist, Lilium De Cotte, Nas Na Riogh, No Shenanigans and Non So. Martin Pipe's six Arkle entries include the highly regarded Our Vic, who is to make his chasing debut this week.

Racing in brief

As the forecast freeze looms, prospects for racing on turf today hinge on inspections at Sedgefield and Leicester. The day's other card is on the all-weather track at Southwell, where the clerk of the course, Jon Pullin, said: "Everyone is geared up to work the track through the night. We're forecast to get down to minus two or three and if we stay at that then we don't anticipate problems." Tomorrow's card at Hexham is subject to an inspection at 10am today.

Davy Russell, who last week lost his job with the Middleham trainer Ferdy Murphy, is to be first jockey to the Naas trainer Michael O'Brien, for whom he rode a winner and a second at Leopardstown on Sunday.