Willie Mullins saddles Hedgehunter at Newbury on Saturday as he attempts to win this year's Hennessy Gold Cup before he collects the last.
The Irish trainer's Be My Royal is in the form book as the Hennessy victor 12 months ago, but legal machinations continue as connections fight off potential disqualification.
Be My Royal's doggedness is not under dispute. He damaged a tendon so badly during the course of his defeat of Gingembre that he will never run again. Such tenacity has been duplicated by those behind the horse, who refuse to believe a subsequent positive drugs test for morphine is enough to deny the chaser his final moment.
Be My Royal was one of 35 horses to test positive for morphine in November and December of last year. The Irish feed supplier Connolly's Red Mills have since admitted that traces of the alkaloid had been found in batches of their product.
Seven of the suits have been determined and winners disqualified, but the rest remain and Be My Royal is considered the test case. His appeal is expected to be heard in January and, like the historical reference of the Aga Khan and the Aliysa inquiry, a formidable defensive legal team has been assembled.
Irish and British lawyers will appear on behalf of Be My Royal, but the key figure is professor Thomas Tobin, who has provided a report which goes as far as to question the results of the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory in Newmarket, supposedly the leading centre of its kind in the world. Tobin, a renowned veterinarian, pharmacologist and toxicologist, will travel from the University of Kentucky for the hearing.
Meanwhile, Mullins goes about the business of trying to get another of his horses home first. The cat has been well and truly liberated and Hedgehunter will not be allowed to embark anywhere near Be My Royal's price of 33-1. Around 9-1, the odds he was cut to from 12-1 by Coral yesterday, is likely.
Hedgehunter is not so dark because he has given a preview of his abilities to British punters. Only a catastrophic blunder at the infamous Prestbury Park second last stopped him playing a significant role in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival this spring.
Mullins likes the horse far more than his preparation. "Coming over without a run under his belt makes it very hard," the trainer said yesterday. "Realistically, it's difficult to think he can win, but if we don't try he definitely can't.
"I would describe him as a typical staying chaser, learning his trade. He wants soft ground, a light weight and lots of miles. I can see him running in any race with the word National in it. He's entered in the Welsh National and any long-distance chase, three miles plus. I would hope to see him in the Irish National or at Aintree at the end of the season."
Mullins is also concerned about the circumstances of his apparent win 12 months ago and, in particular, British racing's intolerance to morphine. Other substances are allowed a threshold. "We're not going to take it lying down," the trainer said. "We think the rules should have been updated by now."
It is an attitude replicated by Red Mills. "Our aim is to get the rules changed to allow a minimum threshold for all naturally occurring substances, including morphine, and we are using these cases to draw the attention of the racing authorities to the matter," Mark Mortell, a spokesman, has said. "We hope that high-profile cases like Be My Royal's win in the Hennessy will highlight the problem."
The hero and unwitting villain is, appropriately, enjoying a regal existence at Mullins's Closutton yard in Co Carlow. Be My Royal is swanking around with others who have earned their keep. "He's retired in the field with a few others like Wither Or Which [the 1996 Festival Bumper winner ridden by Mullins]," the trainer said. "He's convalescing there and he's in great form. He won't go racing again, but we might give him to someone to go pointing."
* Darryll Holland has lost the ride on Falbrav in the Hong Kong Cup on 14 December to Frankie Dettori. The Italian rode the colt to win last year's Japan Cup but Holland has been on board for his last six starts, including wins in the Eclipse, International and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. They finished a close third in the Breeders' Cup Turf on their last outing. Falbrav, who is trained by Luca Cumani and owned by Luciano Salice and Teruya Yoshida, is expected to close his career in Hong Kong. "For an Italian jockey it's a very special feeling to ride an Italian horse in a big race," Dettori said.
NB: Kemal's Council