For jump trainers, this is the longest week of the year. There are now seven days to go until the start of the Cheltenham Festival, seven long days for something to go wrong. For Charles Byrnes the bell has already tolled; the Champion Hurdle joint-favourite Solwhit, pride of his Co Limerick stable, has picked up an infection in his airway and there are now strong doubts about his participation in the opening day showpiece.
An examination after routine exercise yesterday revealed the problem. "He has scoped dirty," Byrnes said, "and he'll have to go on antibiotics until Thursday, so things are very much in the balance. It's obviously very disappointing as he has, apart from one cough, never given any indication that anything might have been wrong."
Solwhit, who has yet to run at Cheltenham, has won three of his four races this season, his only defeat coming behind Go Native and Sublimity at Newcastle in November. He consolidated his place at the head of the Champion Hurdle market with victory in the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown in January.
"The plan had been for him to travel over to England on Saturday morning," Byrnes added, "but that will have to be put on hold now. We'll scope him again later in the week and see how it's looking; we'll see how he reacts to the antibiotics and make a late decision. He is not definitely out of the Champion Hurdle. There has to be a serious doubt about him running."
Solwhit had been as short as 7-2 for the two-mile hurdling crown, vying for favouritism with compatriot Go Native. He has been eased to 5-1 in most bookmakers' lists (he drifted to as much as 29-1 on the Betfair exchange before settling at 13-1), with SkyBet offering the "non-runner, no bet" concession. Others have been clipped commensurately; Go Native is clear favourite at 3-1, last year's winner Punjabi 6-1, Zaynar 13-2 and Starluck 12-1.
The Champion Hurdle market, particularly open and volatile this season, has been strewn with elephant traps for ante-post punters. The news about Solwhit follows hard on the heels of the defection of the 2007 winner Sublimity with a leg problem and various setbacks and defeats have beset one-time favourites like Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Zaynar.
The doubt over Solwhit, though, has not moved Philip Fenton from his decision to keep star rookie Dunguib among his peers in the Spinal Research Supreme Novices' Hurdle, for which he is odds-on. The seven-year-old, who has passed the post first in eight of his nine races, is still among the entries for the Champion Hurdle, but will be removed at tomorrow's penultimate confirmation stage.
If he does take on his seniors this season, it will be on home ground in April. "If all goes well in the Supreme," said the Co Tipperary trainer, "the plan is to pitch him in against the big guns at Punchestown."
Noel Meade gave an upbeat bulletin about Go Native, who has a £1m bonus at stake as well as the Champion Hurdle title, but was less enthusiastic about the watering that started at Cheltenham yesterday to maintain the current mostly good-to-soft underfoot conditions. "I'm sure a lot of trainers of soft-ground horses will welcome that," said Co Meath-based Meade, "but then there are those like us that don't really want it. The danger is if they get it wrong and overwater or it rains heavily overnight. Even though he won at Kempton at Christmas the ground was against him; it was tacky and that's what he doesn't want. But he's in fine form and we are just counting down the days." And, presumably, breaking out the cotton wool.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Where's Reiley (2.10 Southwell)
Has shot up the ratings after three course and distance victories in four outings but finishes strongly and gives the impression that there may yet be more to come.
Teeming Rain (3.30 Exeter)
Notably inconsistent but won this last year off a higher mark and showed the glimmer of a return to form last time out back over a marathon trip.
*One To Watch
Ballaline (Mrs S J Smith) showed enough when fifth on his second run over hurdles at Sedgefield on Sunday to indicate that he will be of interest when he starts his career in handicaps.
*Where The Money's Going
Starting with Dunguib and ending with Quevega, punters can take the Cheltenham first-day market leaders on collectively. Boylesports go 6-1 that there will be no winning favourites on that card.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Xpres Maite (4.40 Southwell)