The gelding, owned by Sheikh Mohammed and trained by James Fanshawe, is thought to have suffered a heart attack after the Bookmakers' Hurdle, in which he finished fourth to Novello Allegro. The race, his first since winning at the Festival in March, was only the fifth of Royal Gait's jumps career.
The suggestion that all was not well with the nine-year-old came when he faded after the last obstacle. 'The sad part is that Graham (McCourt, Royal Gait's jockey) said he had felt as good as he was at Cheltenham as they came to the final flight,' Jim Lenehan, the assistant manager at the Sheikh's Kildangan Stud in Co. Kildare, said. 'But when he didn't pick up he was easy on him knowing that he needed the race.'
McCourt himself reported how Royal Gait deteriorated in a matter of strides. 'I was absolutely swinging off him turning for home, but he began to lose his action three strides before the last,' the jockey said. 'At first I thought he had blown up or even broken down, but as soon as we got to the line I realised he was going to keel over with me and just hopped off in time.'
Royal Gait will go down as having had one of racing's more eventful careers, and if any horse has had the pleasure of lying on shredded newspaper of his own stories, the odds are that it is him.
Purchased as a two-year-old for 5,500 gns at the Doncaster Sales, the horse was first sent to Spain, where he collected races and trainers in abundance. He won for seven different handlers, but made his name internationally only when he won the Prix du Cadran at Longchamp as a four-year-old.
Competition in France became more frequent when Royal Gait was switched to the Chantilly stables of John Fellows, but it was in Britain that his most notable moment came, in the Ascot Gold Cup of 1988.
Having proved he was demonstrably the best horse in that race, Royal Gait, under Cash Asmussen, was disqualified by the stewards for causing interference, a decision which ranks among racing's greatest bungles.
Sheikh Mohammed subsequently bought the horse, but never managed to run him on the Flat as the gelding was struck down by a leg injury and retired.
A pensioner's life did not agree with Royal Gait and he became sufficiently frisky after three years away from the racecourse to earn a return to action, based at the Newmarket yard of James Fanshawe.
'It's a devastating blow for the stable and the owner,' the trainer said yesterday. 'Royal Gait gave me the best day of my racing career at Cheltenham last March.'
Royal Gait, who became the first novice since Doorknocker in 1956 to win a Champion Hurdle, was also the oldest victor since Sea Pigeon in 1981. Following the recent eclipses of Morley Street and Kribensis, he had been seen as the likeliest past winner to lift hurdling's crown again in March.
The bookmakers now expect a new and younger name to be on the trophy. Yesterday's amendments mean the ante-post market is dominated by Halkopous and Mighty Mogul, who was cut to 5-2 favouritism by both Coral and William Hill.
LEOPARDSTOWN (2m, Bookmakers Hurdle): 1. NOVELLO ALLEGRO (C Swan) 6-1; 2. Muir Station 7-1; 3. Crowded House 6-1. 7 ran. head, 4. 11-10 fav Royal Gait (4th). (N Meade, Navan). Tote: pounds 7.40; pounds 2.60, pounds 2.50. Reverse forecast: pounds 27.60. Computer Straight Forecast: pounds 41.20.
CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 16 March): Coral: 5-2 Mighty Mogul, 4-1 Halkopous, 10-1 Destriero, Granville Again & Vintage Crop, 12-1 Morley Street & Staunch Friend, 16-1 others; Ladbrokes: 3-1 Mighty Mogul, 4-1 Halkopous, 10-1 Staunch Friend & Vintage Crop, 12-1 Flown, Granville Again & Morley Street, 16-1 others; William Hill: 5-2 Mighty Mogul, 4-1 Halkopous, 8-1 Vintage Crop, 10-1 Destriero, Morley Street & Staunch Friend, 12-1 Granville Again, 16-1 others.