Dorans Pride had taken the lead seven fences from home having jumped soundly throughout yesterday's race, and turned for home five lengths clear of Merry Gale and Royal Mountbrowne, with an easy victory to match his starting price of 1-2 apparently assured. An extra stride at the penultimate fence gave Shane Broderick no chance, however, and allowed Merry Gale a narrow and fortunate success at 9-4.
Hourigan had previously expressed doubts as to whether Dorans Pride would be ready to take on the best with so little chasing experience to call on, and remained undecided after yesterday's events. "We won't be making any decision about the Gold Cup for a week or two," the trainer said. "He seems okay and I hope he is fine in the morning. Shane said he was travelling strongly when he put down again rather than came up at the second last.
"He got away with doing that at the second-last ditch at Leopardstown last time, but not here. Someone remarked to me that the sun may have cast a shadow at the second-last and distracted the horse but I am not to wishing to make what could be a silly excuse like that. They are there to be jumped and Dorans Pride didn't manage it this time.''
Imperial Call, meanwhile, will miss the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park tomorrow, and will instead head for the defence of his chasing championship boasting the sort of form which an all-in wrestler might recognise - one fall and a submission. The latter mishap was in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, when Imperial Call appeared to be cantering on the run to the third-last fence, only to drop away without the hint of a struggle, and the results of a recent blood test imply that he is still off-colour.
"His blood picture is not 100 per cent right and there is some little thing wrong," Fergie Sutherland, his trainer, said yesterday. "All he needs is to get to Cheltenham fit, so what I have decided to do is send him to Thurles today and give him a spin after racing."
Again, however, Sutherland's plans were frustrated. A miscalculation over race-times - the trainer thought that racing started an hour and 40 minutes before it actually did - meant that Imperial Call would have been galloping in the evening gloom, and the trainer decided to keep the horse at home.
Some might say that with less than four weeks to go to the Gold Cup, a "little thing wrong" is a contradiction in terms, and Imperial Call's blood count might conceivably indicate an infection to come rather than, as Sutherland seems to believe, one on the wane. In short, it seems most unlikely that his Gold Cup odds will shrink appreciably between now and race-day, so bets are best postponed until the exact situation becomes clear.
After all, the speed with which ante-post vouchers can be devalued was clearly demonstrated yesterday when Dato Star, a 14-1 chance, was ruled out of this year's Champion Hurdle, and quite possibly the 1998 renewal as well, with a ligament problem.
"He was scanned this morning and he has got a slight suspensory strain," Malcolm Jefferson, his trainer, said. He will be out for the rest of the season and we won't hurry him back as time is the greatest of all healers. It is a big blow for the lads and the yard.''
The only certainty about this latest Festival scratching is that, as training programmes pass the point of no return, it will not be the last. Next Thursday, it will be the turn of Coome Hill's supporters to wait anxiously for news as the (Newbury) Hennessy winner prepares for the Gold Cup in the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton.
Walter Dennis, Coome Hill's trainer, has chosen this race in preference to both the Racing Post Chase at Kempton and the Greenalls Grand National Trial at Haydock. "Hopefuly they've had the rain there that we've had and that's where we're aiming," he said yesterday.
From Dennis's Cornwall yard, Wincanton will seem like a quick jaunt around the corner, but the arrangements will be rather more costly when Master Oats leaves Kim Bailey's yard to travel to the Ericsson Grand National Trial at Punchestown on Sunday. Bailey had planned to share the expense with Charlie Brooks, whose Suny Bay was expected to contest the same event, but Suny Bay's withdrawal has forced the trainer to opt for a pounds 12,000 air ticket instead. For that sort of money, you can only hope that Master Oats will enjoy free peanuts and hot towels for the duration of the flight.
CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (13 March). William Hill: 7-2 Imperial Call, 9-2 Dorans Pride, 7-1 Danoli, 8-1 Coome Hill & Dublin Flyer, 9-1 One Man, 14-1 Addington Boy & Mr Mulligan, 16-1 The Grey Monk, 20-1 bar.
Coral: 4-1 Imperial Call, 5-1 Dorans Pride, 6-1 Coome Hill & Danoli, 8-1 Dublin Flyer, 10-1 One Man, 12-1 The Grey Monk, 14-1 Addington Boy, 16-1 Banjo, 20-1 bar.
Ladbrokes: 7-2 Imperial Call, 4-1 Dorans Pride, 5-1 Danoli, 6-1 Dublin Flyer, 8-1 Coome Hill & One Man (with a run), 12-1 Mr Mulligan, The Grey Monk & Addington Boy, 14-1 bar.