Williamson, 27 last month, earned all the plaudits for his fight to fitness and was due to renew his partnership with Master Oats in today's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown. But racing is the ultimate leveller and the Irishman's hopes disappeared in a tangle of legs and hooves four hurdles from home as Eskimo Nel dived through the obstacle, bringing down Statajack and interfering with Pridwell. Paul Carberry, rider of the winner, Squire Silk, said: "I saw Norman go down in front of me, and he got a right kicking."
Since the glory of his Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle double at Cheltenham last March, Williamson's luck has deserted him with a vengeance. He dislocated the same shoulder at the start of the season, and his specialist, Michael Foy, said: "This sort of injury usually needs three weeks - if it's not fractured - so, while in theory he should be back for Cheltenham, it will be a close thing."
Williamson was taken to the Ridgeway Hospital near Swindon for X-rays, and the agony on his face as he left the Newbury medical room spoke of more than the physical pain he was feeling. His road to recovery, with the goal of Cheltenham at the end, had been long and hard, and he had been passed fit only five days ago. A devastated Kim Bailey, trainer of Master Oats, said that Jamie Osborne, who deputised for Williamson on the gelding on his seasonal debut at Chepstow, will be in the saddle again today.
Williamson's injury took some of the gloss off the day's feature race, but Squire Silk's three-length victory in Europe's most valuable handicap hurdle earned him a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. Carberry had the Andy Turnell-trained seven-year-old close to the pace throughout as Romancer attempted to make all, and brought him through with a well-timed run to lead at the last flight.
The jockey said: "Four out I was already thinking of winning. I was going better than anything and in the straight it was just a question of delaying my challenge to make sure he got home."
After being headed, Romancer stayed on well for second place, four lengths in front of Non Vintage and the 66-1 shot Celibate. The joint-favourites, Warm Spell and Express Gift, finished eighth and 17th respectively.
Squire Silk, one of eight winners produced by his dam, gave his veteran owner-breeder, Robert Ogden, his biggest success in 25 years. Turnell said: "There's improvement in him yet, and there'll be worse than him in the Champion Hurdle field."
Where Viking Flagship is concerned, David Nicholson has always adopted a policy of letting the horse do the talking, and the champion two-mile chaser answered his recent critics in nose-thumbing style with a resounding victory in the Mitsubishi Shogun Game Spirit Chase.
The nine-year-old, reunited with Adrian Maguire after two disappointing efforts this season, duelled with Travado over the last two fences, but settled the issue with a splendid leap at the last to come home six lengths clear and let it be known that he is no back number. He is now a best- priced 3-1 with Ladbrokes to retain his Cheltenham crown against the young pretenders Sound Man and Strong Platinum. His trainer, who has never lost faith, commented: "My 10-1 doesn't look so silly now, does it?"
Nicholson added: "He's a gross horse, and he now seems to need a couple of runs to put him right. And today he was given a positive ride. He and Adrian suit each other, they're two good, tough people." Viking Flagship will have one more run before Cheltenham to add the final edge, in the Emblem Chase at Kempton a week on Saturday.
Nicholson, like most at Newbury, was just glad to be racing again, and paid tribute to his staff at home who had kept the horses on the move during the freeze-up. And in the opener, the Mandarin Chase, owner Paul Barber's efforts beyond the call of duty reaped their reward when Sunley Bay and Philip Hide foiled Grand National entry Dextra Dove's bid for an eight-timer by a short-head. Barber, a dairy farmer, had kept the gallops at Paul Nicholl's Somerset yard open through twice-daily sessions with his tractor and harrow.
Sunley Bay, a dour stayer, is now Cheltenham-bound, where the Kim Muir Chase is his target. Point-to-point champion Polly Curling will be in the saddle.Reuse content