Robert Walford, the journeyman jump jockey plucked from relative obscurity to partner the top-class chaser Kingscliff, has only an even-money chance of being fit to partner the Robert Alner-trained eight-year-old in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day after a fall on the gallops yesterday morning. The 25-year-old fractured his left collarbone when a novice he was schooling came down.
Ironically, the accident happened less than two hours before Walford and Kingscliff were due to meet the media at Alner's Dorset yard. Instead of parading proudly with the gelding he rode to victory at Haydock last month, the Yorkshireman was in hospital in Blandford.
There, an x-ray examination revealed the injury as slight and there is now a 10-day countdown to the traditional festive showpiece, run at Sandown this year.
"He has a hairline fracture," Sally Alner, the trainer's wife, said. "You can hardly see it and his collarbone has not moved or anything like that. He said he's not going to move an inch for five days because he wants to get better. His chances would be 50-50."
Walford has ridden Kingscliff on both his starts this term and landed the biggest win of his career when claiming the scalp of Kicking King in the Betfair Chase, a victory which put his connections in line for the £1m bonus due if he can add the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The jockey's fall, from a horse he was due to partner today, came out of the blue. "I just wanted him to have a pop," said Alner. "He had schooled last week and was fine. This time he jumped a small fence but at the ditch he seemed to trip as he landed. We so rarely have schooling falls; I can't remember the last one.
"Robert was gutted. He didn't say much, but I do remember just one short word."
A decision has not yet been made about who might replace Walford if he loses his race against time, despite the presence and availability of Alner's stable jockey, Andrew Thornton, who rode Kingscliff for the previous two seasons, including a particularly praiseworthy victory at Ascot after a rein broke.
It was the horse's owner, Arnie Sendell, who chose to replace Thornton with Walford and he will have the final say again. Tony McCoy, Richard Johnson and Mick Fitzgerald are among those likely to be available.
"I have nothing against Andrew, he is a very good rider," he said yesterday, "but I always thought Robert would get on with Kingscliff. I am not saying that Andrew won't ride him, but I am not saying that he will. We'll talk it over and see how we feel."
With Walford hors de combat, Alner took over on Kingscliff's back for a routine exercise spin round three laps of the woodchip circuit at Locketts Farm, alongside Sir Rembrandt at the head of the string. The strapping bay gelding, the 9-4 second favourite behind Kicking King to go one place better then when beaten two and a half lengths by that rival at Kempton 12 months ago, looked in tremendous nick.
Alner feels the big horse, who stands 17.2 hands, has now reached his full, impressive strength. "Touch wood," he said, "his preparation has gone perfectly this season, no hiccups whatsoever. I think when he was younger his bones were fairly soft, but he's matured now. He just needed time to get to his frame. And Sandown, with more of an emphasis on stamina than Kempton, will suit him."
Sendall, 73, who this year turned down an offer of £750,000 for the horse he bought as an unbroken three-year-old in Ireland, favours the glory and the fun before the money he may pick up. "If we win the million, then three cheers, but it's not everything." he added. "If you try and build these things up you come down to earth with a big bump."
Literally, in the case of the unfortunate Walford. Yesterday afternoon Graham Lee was luckier; due to partner top stayer Inglis Drever in the Long Walk Hurdle at Windsor tomorrow, he escaped shaken but unscathed after a heavy fall from Grattan Lodge at Catterick and will be back in action at Uttoxeter today.
So, too, will Tony McCoy, who missed yesterday after spending a night in hospital with a viral infection. His mounts at the Midlands track include well-regarded novice chaser Tamarinbleu for his former boss Martin Pipe, who yesterday ended what was, for him, an extraordinary losing run when 9-4 favourite Lough Derg won the beginners' chase at Exeter. It was the first winner in 47 runners for the 15 times champion trainer, deposed for this year's title by odds-on Paul Nicholls.
"It's a relief for everyone at the yard," said Pipe, "and I hope we've turned the corner." He added that one of the stable stars, Our Vic, was recovering well from ligament damage incurred at Cheltenham on Saturday.
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