Racing: O'Neill's Champion Hurdle hope sidelined as virus sweeps yard

It has not been borne out by racecourse performance recently, but these are troubled times at the Jackdaws Castle seat of Jonjo O'Neill. There is, according to O'Neill, a virulent bacterium sweeping through his Gloucestershire yard, a disease which is threatening to disrupt plans for the Cheltenham Festival.

The Irishman detailed this calamity yesterday in the rather incongruous setting of the winners' enclosure at Prestbury Park, following the victory of Joss Naylor. It will not be an area visited by Rhinestone Cowboy in the near future however, as the lightning novice ­ a young horse who may yet go for the Champion Hurdle ­ is among those blighted.

"There is something going around the yard which is getting into their systems and knocks them back for about three weeks to a month," O'Neill said. "We are doing our best to identify the ones that have it but some are getting through, running badly. Rhinestone Cowboy has it at the moment. He's quiet. There's not much life in him at present."

There has, nevertheless, been plenty of vim about two other high-profile O'Neill horses recently, namely Intersky Falcon and Mini Sensation, the winners respectively of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and Chepstow's Welsh National. Further valuable baubles await.

"I've put Intersky Falcon in in Ireland for the AIG Hurdle [at Leopardstown on 26 January] but he wouldn't want heavy ground," O'Neill added. "If he didn't go there it would be Wincanton [for the Kingwell Hurdle on 15 February] and then the Champion or just straight to the Champion. He doesn't need to have another run ­ he's good that way.

"Mini Sensation, if he's okay, he'll go for the big race at Warwick [the Warwickshire Gold Cup on Saturday week], but the way things are you couldn't be sure how he will be."

Yet if O'Neill thinks he has it bad he should look at the current times of the champion jockey. For the second day running Tony McCoy had a pig of an afternoon, even managing to throw himself on to terra firma at one stage.

McCoy was beaten into second place in the first two races ­ on both occasions in photo-finishes ­ but the real embarrassment came when he partnered Vanormix in a juvenile novice hurdle. The four-year-old carried the same colours as the ill-fated Valiramix, who died on this course last March. It was not propitious.

McCoy and Vanormix, the 4-5 favourite, were duelling with The Last Cast for much of the race and, after the last, it became serious stuff. But as McCoy wound himself up for a typical finish he somehow managed to slip his right foot out of its stirrup. That prefaced his whole body slipping out of the saddle. Some day he may be able to look back on this incident with mild amusement. That moment, though, will not be in 2003.

McCoy's chagrin in the previous race was caused by Timmy Murphy and Sir Frosty, who needed every bit of real estate in the 4m1f Miles Gosling Handicap Chase to get his head in front of Polar Champ. It was, in effect, a slog and it now seems Sir Frosty might be aimed at the greatest slog of them all at Aintree in April.

"Provided the handicapper doesn't crucify us and if I can persuade the owners, one has got to wonder whether we should actually go for the big one with him," John Ryall, the trainer, said.

Newcastle in doubt

Prospects for the weekend appear marginally more hopeful as Haydock are optimistic Saturday's meeting will go ahead. The clerk of the course, Kirkland Tellwright, said last night: "We've had 10mm of rain to nine o'clock this morning and a bit since then. There is more about but not enough, I think, to worry us."

The outlook for Newcastle on the same day is not so good and there will be an inspection tomorrow morning. Saturday's other jumps card at Sandown is also doubtful as the course is waterlogged in places and an inspection is planned for 3pm today.

Tomorrow's meeting at Hexham was called off yesterday, but there are no problems at Ludlow or Wolverhampton.

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