On the afternoon that he was named jumps trainer of the year by his sport's scribes, pundits and commentators, Nigel Twiston-Davies had to admit that even his skills were not up to getting recently-injured Imperial Commander back to full fitness in time for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
The nine-year-old gelding damaged a foreleg in the process of making a successful seasonal debut in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month and, although he started light exercise last week after a period confined to his box, a setback means that his diary has been cleared. In fact, he may not run again before he defends his Gold Cup title at Cheltenham in March.
"He has a slight infection in his leg," said Twiston-Davies yesterday, "and it means we won't be able to get him cherry-ripe for Kempton. It's nothing serious, we just ran out of time; he's back on antibiotics and he can't canter for two weeks. It's likely that he'll go straight for the Gold Cup now, but that's not written in stone, depending on how things develop along the way."
Imperial Commander had been third market choice for the Grade 1 festive showpiece, behind four-time winner Kauto Star and young pretender Long Run. But though he had never been competitive in two previous tries at the William Hill-sponsored three-miler round a sharp right-handed track that seemingly does not play to his strengths, Twiston-Davies had been relishing another crack at Kauto Star.
"I'm not bottling it," he said, "I'd have done anything to get him to Kempton. We wanted to prove we are the best horse around, but he'll be at the Gold Cup in March and we'll do it then."
Kauto Star, trained by Paul Nicholls, has now hardened to as short as 10-11 for an unprecedented fifth King George triumph. Long Run, from the Nicky Henderson stable, is generally a 5-1 shot with Irish raider Forpadydeplasterer, runner-up in his last seven races, third choice at 8-1. Two long-shots, Captain Cee Bee and Catch Me, were also ruled out of the race yesterday.
Officials at Cheltenham remain optimistic that Friday and Saturday's high-profile meeting will beat the cold snap, with the main track now under protective frost covers. "With the forecast as it stands – up to two or three degrees on Friday and warmer on Saturday – we should be ok," said course clerk Simon Claisse yesterday.
The lack of obstacle racing yesterday did not thwart Tony McCoy's quest for winners; the Ulsterman took the bumper on Tazzarine at Southwell's all-weather track at just about the time he was being named jump jockey of the year at the 44th annual Horserace Writers' & Photographers' Association ceremony in London, the 12th occasion on which he has taken that award. Other winners included Paul Hanagan, Richard Hannon, John Gosden and Khaled Abdullah.
Forty Proof (1.50 Lingfield)
Steps up a furlong after two solid efforts over the minimum trip against the same well-handicapped rival.
Flash City (12.30 Southwell)
Won with something in hand over today's course and distance four days ago and his rider's allowance will offset his penalty.
One to watch
There is surely much more to come from novice hurdler Court In Motion (E Lavelle), a narrow but comfortable winner on his seasonal debut after two eyecatching shots at the target last term.
Where the money's going
Ladbrokes go 20-1 about a Boxing Day family double: Kauto Star to win the King George and young sibling Kauto Stone to take the Feltham Novices Chase.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Al Khatma (1.20 Lingfield)