Racing: Rhinestone Cowboy out of Festival

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The Independent Online

Arthur Conan Doyle himself would never have contrived a series of disappearances as bewildering as the one extended yesterday by news that Rhinestone Cowboy would not make the Cheltenham Festival. In truth, this was much the least surprising in a litany of defections by leading fancies for each of the championship races, as this fragile animal has not been seen since April 2004, when he won a grade one race at Punchestown.

None the less, Rhinestone Cowboy had remained one of the favourites for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle until his trainer yesterday admitted defeat. "We are losing the battle and he will not make Cheltenham," Jonjo O'Neill said. "I will have to talk to the owners, but he will probably be retired."

Last month O'Neill was devastated by the death of Lingo, one of the favourites for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, and now he has lost the services of a horse with sufficient class to have finished third in that race three years ago. That was one of just four defeats in 14 starts.

O'Neill will now seek comfort from Refinement, who extended her unbeaten run over hurdles to five at Huntingdon on Thursday. The mare will go for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle, over two miles and five furlongs, in preference to the AIB Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "She did it very well and the further she went, the more it suited her," O'Neill said. Coral offer 10-1.

Robert Alner has dismissed suggestions that Kingscliff, who remains one of the favourites for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup despite dropping himself out during a race at Haydock last month, should wear headgear at the Festival. "He's genuine enough and if he's right he won't need a visor, blinkers or anything else," the trainer said.

Willie Supple, retained by Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum as understudy to Richard Hills, has left that privileged position in order to end his career in his native Ireland.

Supple, 37, sampled the benefits of Sheikh Hamdan's patronage when riding a Royal Ascot double on Bandari and Thakafaat at York last June. "They don't race in Ireland every day so I can still go to England a few days a week," he said.