Nicky Henderson, champion jumps trainer and second in this season's standings with 90 winners, a 25 per cent strike rate and the best part of £1.2m in prize-money won in Britain, has complained of enduring a "horror season". Yet even after the stable's Pegasus was ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival at the weekend, he still has the fourth and sixth in the betting to take up the Champion Chase crown Sprinter Sacre has lain down and leading contenders across the major prizes at the fixture where he has saddled more winners than anyone else.
Not quite such strength in depth remains to console Colin Tizzard, whose standard-bearer Cue Card has been ruled out of the Festival with pulled muscles. The eight-year-old, who won the Champion Bumper in 2010 and the Ryanair Chase last year at the meeting, and finished in the frame there in the intervening seasons, was being prepared for a tilt at the Gold Cup this time around following success in the Grade One Lancashire Chase at Haydock and a second in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
"Unfortunately, he has pulled muscles behind and he won't be running at the Cheltenham Festival," Tizzard said. "We first noticed it last week. It was only a small thing then and it is only small now, but we cantered him this morning and he is still not right. The horse has looked after me for the last four years and it is my turn to look after him now."
The Henderson-trained Bobs Worth shortened to 7-4 as favourite to win the Gold Cup for a second year, with the King George victor Silviniaco Conti 3-1, followed by a supporting cast that looks all too thin in Cue Card's absence.
The heartaches and horrors of the trainer's trade have not deterred the veteran Irish jockey Johnny Murtagh from hanging up his saddle to devote himself full-time to training, a career he pursued in parallel to riding last season, when he sent out 15 winners in Ireland as well as landing the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day with Royal Diamond.
"The training side of things is getting bigger all the time and I wasn't happy giving the riding 50 per cent and training 50 per cent," Murtagh said. "It's the right time to put everything into the training."
Murtagh, five times champion in Ireland, was the dominant rider at Royal Ascot in recent seasons, riding 43 winners at the meeting, and perhaps the most gifted Epsom jockey of the age, shading even Kieren Fallon and Ryan Moore. Murtagh partnered three Derby winners in Sinndar, High Chaparral and Motivator, and made all to take the 2011 Oaks on Dancing Rain.