Countdown to Cheltenham: King fears storm threat to reigning champion

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The Independent Online

Today is D - for doctor - day for Tony McCoy. The 12-times champion will learn this morning if his determined efforts to return to race-riding in time for the start of Cheltenham on Tuesday have been worth it. Since damaging his back in a fall at Warwick 54 days ago, he has had surgery to place a screw in a vertebra and a regime of single-minded physiotherapy that has included spells in a chamber at -130 Celsius. The man with the final say over whether or not he is frozen out of the Festival is racing's chief medical officer, Dr Michael Turner.

McCoy was cleared last week by his own doctor to start a return to the saddle behind the scenes and has been partnering Jonjo O'Neill's charges in gallops at home and on the racecourse to no ill effect. But Turner requested an independent assessment of the Ulsterman's condition, which took place last night.

"A report will be sent afterwards to Dr Turner," said McCoy's personal assistant, Gee Armytage, yesterday, "who will then review it. We will know the outcome in the morning."

With 19 winners, the first of which was Kibreet in the 1996 Grand Annual Chase, McCoy is the Festival's most successful current jockey, five ahead of Mick Fitzgerald and Ruby Walsh, although it is 10 years since he was the meeting's champion and 12 months ago he had to wait until the final day for his sole victory, on Wichita Lineman.

Just 12 horses remain in the second of next week's senior Grade One contests, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, after yesterday's penultimate declaration stage, including the first two favourites, the Paul Nicholls stablemates Master Minded and Twist Magic, and the last two winners, Voy Por Ustedes and Newmill.

Alan King, Voy Por Ustedes' trainer, warned that the wet weather forecast for the start of next week would not be in his charge's favour in his defence of the two-mile crown. "He's in very good form, he schooled this morning and it went very well," he said of the seven-year-old yesterday. "But I have said all along that he is a much better horse on good spring ground so we don't want any rain. The forecast is not encouraging."

Another high-profile contender, Twist Magic's Victor Chandler Chase conqueror, Tamarinbleu, also holds the engagement in the two mile five furlong Ryanair Chase the following day. He is fourth-market choice for both races and his trainer, David Pipe, indicated yesterday that the decision as to which will be his target would go down to the wire. "We'll decide closer to the time," he said. "He isn't slow, but has won good races up to three miles. They say good horses win at any distance and he is proof of that."

The eight-year-old's stablemate Our Vic is challenging Irish raider Mossbank for favouritism for the longer race, in which he was runner-up 12 months ago. "He gave weight away then," added Pipe, "but this year, with the race a Grade One, we are off levels and it looks tailor-made for him."

Pipe reported that the yard's Champion Hurdle contender, Osana, is primed for Tuesday's fray, despite being absent from the track since winning at Cheltenham in December. "Sizing Europe [the favourite] looks the one to beat," he said, "but I'm sure we'll put up a bold show. He jumps and travels very well and the forecast good to soft ground will suit him."

The meeting's hottest favourite is likely to be the Howard Johnson-trained Inglis Drever, going for a third World Hurdle, and his supporters will have taken heart yesterday when Carlisle winner Companero gave his recently out-of-form stable its second success in as many days.

At Nad Al Sheba, Jalil emerged as a live Godolphin contender for the Dubai World Cup by storming home under Frankie Dettori in the Group Two trial previously taken by subsequent winners of the world's richest race, Dubai Millennium, Electrocutionist and Street Cry. The progressive Storm Cat colt, famously a $9.7m yearling, is now unbeaten in three runs since being switched to dirt.

The big-race favourite, Curlin, though, hardened as favourite without leaving his box when chief market rival Asiatic Boy ran a flat third to the blues' pair Elusive Warning and Blackat Blackitten in his trial.

David Elsworth provided a strike for Britain at the pre-World Cup Carnival when 20-1 shot Gower Song beat Mourilyan in the 12-furlong turf Group Two contest. "This is her proper trip," he said. "We were to go home on Tuesday, but we'll stay if we get an invite to the Sheema Classic."

Looking further ahead, Jim Bolger has revealed that New Approach, favourite for the 2,000 Guineas, will not appear in public before contesting the 200th edition of the season's first Classic on 3 May. The colt, last year's top-rated juvenile, has followed a similar career path to his former stablemate Teofilo, with the important exception that he has come through the close season unscathed.

New Approach, unbeaten in five races, was last seen when scoring a hard-fought victory in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October. "He is very well, a much stronger horse than last year, and has done exceptionally well over the winter," said Bolger. "He has enough racing experience already and will go straight for the Guineas."

Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts

The Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter between the steeplechasing giants Kauto Star and Denman has dominated the turf all season. Today, Jim Lewis, the owner of triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate, gives his view.

"I have an ante-post bet on Exotic Dancer, simply because the 18-1 odds that I got for finishing third made him a better proposition. But, on the day I shall back Kauto Star and I think he's a much improved horse over the past couple of years. That thing he used to do at the last fence, he's now forgotten all about and he hasn't done it in his races for a long time. Ruby Walsh is riding him and they must be full of confidence."