The whole business of getting Exotic Dancer and his jockey to Cheltenham has been proving a pain in the neck. In the case of Tony McCoy, two fractured vertebrae have healed sufficiently for him to gallop no fewer than 20 of Jonjo O'Neill's other horses yesterday morning. The problems facing Exotic Dancer, however, have now been officially upgraded to a pain in the backside.
The only horse generally considered capable of intruding upon the showdown between Kauto Star and Denman is "sore in the lumbar region" and, with 15 days to go, his participation in the Cheltenham Gold Cup is now in doubt.
Moreover, the manner in which the news seeped out of the Cotswolds implied that discomfort is not confined to the horse himself. If those associated with Exotic Dancer are singing from the same hymn sheet here, then the hymn can only have been written by one of the more avant-garde composers.
Exotic Dancer, who finished strongly for second in last year's race, was ominously adrift on the exchanges on Tuesday evening, and Ladbrokes excised his name altogether from their betting. But O'Neill insisted that all was well, and McCoy himself arrived at Cheltenham yesterday – for a media event – with assurances of his own, having just watched the horse cantering with his own eyes.
In fairness to the champion jockey, he could not know that Barry Simpson, racing manager to Sir Robert Ogden, had in the meantime issued a gloomy statement. "Exotic Dancer has been treated by a chiropractor regularly since he damaged a ligament in his back in January," Simpson said. "On a routine visit on Tuesday, it was found the horse was sore in his lumbar region. Exotic Dancer spent some time in the swimming pool late Tuesday evening. Jonjo felt the horse was much more comfortable afterwards, and reiterates the horse is sound.
"The horse is at a crucial stage in his preparation and, though this is a minor setback, the timing could not be worse. Any work missed is critical and this now raises some doubt about his participation. This has come as a hammer blow, as only last Saturday Jonjo reported the horse had worked exceptionally."
McCoy's own prognosis also remained somewhat equivocal. Though he has been cleared to ride again by his specialist, and aims to do so next week, he must first obtain similar approval from an independent expert. "I want to make one thing plain," he said. "I'm not going to come back for Cheltenham if I'm not OK. I'm a bit mad, but not that mad. I feel great. I've always been quick at getting back from injury: I once came back from a broken wrist in seven weeks."
Instinct told him at once that this was a serious case. "I knew more than the doctor who screened me in Coventry," he said. "He told me I had two broken ribs and to go home. Luckily, I couldn't get off the bed." A second scan in Oxford disclosed the damage to his vertebrae, and McCoy elected surgery to accelerate his recovery. "And it's lucky I did," he said. "Because the doctor said afterwards it wouldn't have healed on its own."
Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts
* The eagerly awaited Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter between the giants of steeplechasing, Kauto Star and Denman, has divided racing. Today, Tony McCoy, gives his view of the likely outcome on 14 March.
* I could hardly be expected to make a better choice between the two than Ruby Walsh, the jockey who has been riding them both. That's no disrespect to Denman, who has a lot of potential, but until he shows he can beat him, Kauto Star should be respected as champion, and he deserves to be favourite. Of course, I still hope that I can beat them both on Exotic Dancer!