Statistics have been telling a tale for several weeks now and yesterday the man at the wrong end of one of the lines on the graph, Paul Nicholls, confirmed his concerns for the health of some of his Manor Farm charges. The six-times champion trainer has saddled just one winner this month – Zarkandar at Newbury on Friday – and all his 16 runners on Saturday lost. "It's fairly obvious we had a moderate weekend," he said, "and I have several horses coughing."
With the start of the Cheltenham Festival now in sight, the timing of any infection in the ranks could hardly be worse – though one horse who seems unaffected is the yard's top celebrity, Kauto Star, due to run in the Gold Cup three weeks on Friday.
Nicholls, one of the most accommodating and helpful of his profession in disseminating information and updates, has been forced to close ranks, including the cancellation of tomorrow's pre-Cheltenham media day, an annual occasion when the chief contenders for the sport's showcase occasion are customarily paraded with pride.
This year, as well as the Gold Cup second favourite Kauto Star, they would have included such as Big Buck's, Zarkandar, Rock On Ruby, Al Ferof, Pearl Swan and Ranjaan. But under the circumstances, any disruption of their routine is best avoided.
"It's my duty now to leave no stone unturned as we prepare during the last three weeks before the Festival," said Nicholls, "and the horses and their owners must come first." One of those who pay the oats and vet bills, Clive Smith, has his fingers crossed for Kauto Star. "Everything is fine with him as far as we know," he said.
Nicholls fields three horses at his local track, Taunton, this afternoon. In all, 17 of his 105 runners this year have won, an overall strike rate of 16 per cent, which has declined to just 3 per cent since the start of this month, compared with 23 per cent during November and December. His chief rival, Nicky Henderson, is on a roll, with 37 winners – including seven since Friday – from 126 runners since the start of January, at 29 per cent. Nicholls and Henderson are joint-second in the market for top Festival trainer, behind Willie Mullins.
Of other leading stables, Alan King's is also on an upward curve ahead of Cheltenham. But one of its most progressive inmates, Hold On Julio, has failed to recover from his own bout of coughing to keep his date on Saturday at Kempton in the Racing First Chase, for which he has been replaced by Planet of Sound as favourite. Hold On Julio will now head straight for the JLT Chase at the Festival's opening session.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Hobb's Dream (2.30 Taunton)
Has been chasing but stayed on strongly last month for a wide-margin win on her return to hurdles. Chances of a repeat today helped by her rider's claim.
Next best: Volcan Surprise (3.50 Wetherby)
Runner-up three times from four since his transfer from France. Perm any from a step up in trip, first-time cheekpieces and the juvenile weight allowance to get him off the mark.
Where the money's going: Champion Court was the punters' Cheltenham pick yesterday, cut to 9-1 from 12s for the Jewson Novices Chase by Paddy Power.