Racing: Rough blow for Festival speculators

The Cheltenham Festival may be seven weeks' distant, but for owners and trainers, not to mention punters brave enough to play the ante-post markets, the fretful preliminaries have started already. From now on, the slightest disruption to a horse's preparations will call into question their chance of even reaching the Cotswolds, and yesterday it was the turn of those who have pinned their hopes and hard cash to Rough Quest, last year's Grand National winner, to wince at the news from his yard.

"He's got a bit of heat in his near-fore tendon," Terry Casey, Rough Quest's trainer, said, and for those trying to kid themselves that it did not sound too desperate, there was worse to follow. "When that happens to a big steeplechaser you've just got to stop for a while. We'll review the situation in a week or 10 days, but it's not looking very hopeful for the Gold Cup, or for the rest of the season."

In addition to his victory at Aintree last season, Rough Quest finished runner-up to Imperial Call in the Gold Cup, and had been as low as 6-1 to go one better in March. Many bookmakers removed him from their Festival betting altogether yesterday, and Coral also scratched him from their Grand National list, but William Hill continue to offer 5-1 with a run for the Gold Cup. This seems less than generous when you consider that, even if Rough Quest does make it to the start on 13 March, an interrupted preparation and, perhaps, lack of a prep race should ensure that he starts at comfortably longer odds.

Casey's frustration yesterday was compounded by the fact that Rough Quest appeared to be in excellent heart ahead of his next intended engagement, in the Pillar Chase over the Gold Cup course on Saturday. "He's pretty fit at the moment and he looks very well," the trainer said, allowing those with long-standing bets to hope that, if his injury is less serious than it appears, a swift return to peak fitness may not be beyond his reach. Anyone that optimistic, however, should probably not be in the betting game at all.

Such is the fevered activity in the markets at this time of the year that no sooner had Rough Quest's name started to recede from Gold Cup calculations than another emerged to repace it. Martin Pipe's Cyborgo, winner of the Stayers' Hurdle at last year's Festival, had not jumped a fence in public yesterday morning, but after an effortless success in his first novice chase at Newton Abbot, he is available at just 16-1 (from 25-1) with William Hill to beat Imperial Call and company in less than two months' time. That price is available only on request, however, since the firm believe that a defence of his Stayers' championship remains the most likely option.

Cyborgo was ridden yesterday by Tony McCoy, a booking which came as something of a surprise to Paul Nicholls on Sunday afternoon, since the trainer believed that his "gentleman's agreement" with the champion jockey required McCoy to ride his runner, Flaked Oats.

As a result, McCoy must now reconcile himself to the first serious setback of what had previously seemed to be a charmed career. Nicholls will now give Philip Hide first refusal on such excellent prospects as See More Business and Belmont King, and while the trainer implied yesterday morning that McCoy might still be considered as a back-up, Paul Barber, part-owner of See More Business and one of Nicholls's principal patrons, later insisted that McCoy "will never ride for me again".

Barber added: "I am very disappointed with Tony. If you are in business, a gentleman's agreement is binding. That's how I run my business, and as far as I am concerned, a handshake is as good as a contract. I can't possibly put the man up on one of mine again, it is against my principles."

Dave Roberts, McCoy's agent, made a fair attempt at damage limitation. "Tony said it's all very upsetting," Roberts said, "because they have had some good times together and Paul has helped him a lot."

Roberts insisted that McCoy will continue to ride as a freelance until the end of the season, but the champion's alliance with Martin Pipe will surely grow ever stronger, even if trainer and jockey do not agree a formal contract. Or, for that matter, a gentleman's agreement.