To connections of Binocular, his stunning 11th-hour withdrawal from the defence of his crown at Cheltenham tomorrow has a symmetry that is not so much cruel as downright sadistic. This was the horse, after all, who showed up and won at the Festival last season after being pronounced a non-runner some weeks previously. A year later, everything in the garden had seemed rosy. But when the final declarations were made for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, yesterday morning, the favourite's name was missing.
Moreover the circumstances of his disappearance are, in their way, painfully evocative of one of the few experiences in his career that his trainer will have found still more distressing. For it was on the advice of the British Horseracing Authority that Nicky Henderson felt obliged not to run Binocular, whose system has mysteriously failed to clear medication he recently received to treat an allergy. Henderson volunteered a sample from the horse to the BHA, whose drug-testing procedures had caused him such anguish a couple of years ago. Then, he was heavily fined and given a summer to cool his heels. This time, however, he received the authority's sympathy and implicit congratulation.
That is cold comfort to Henderson, who confessed himself "shattered" by the news he had given J P McManus, the horse's owner. "Binocular had an allergy two weeks ago that did not respond to initial medication," he explained. "On veterinary advice, and well within normal parameters, he required a further treatment the following day. As we were getting close to the most important race of [his] year and also because, since that administration to Binocular, another horse had tested positive for the same substance, I thought it prudent to take a precautionary test."
The outcome "surprisingly, let alone devastatingly" was again positive.
"I am particularly upset for JP, who has been incredibly understanding," Henderson said. "I know how much this horse means to him. I would very much like to sympathise with all Binocular's supporters, and punters who may have backed him ante-post."
Somewhere out there, perhaps, one of those punters will have laid Binocular last year and resolved to retrieve his losses by backing him this time round. In the event, as a gesture of goodwill at the start of Festival week, many bookmakers decided to refund ante-post stakes. They were not under the slightest obligation to do so, of course, and have set themselves a rather curious precedent. By that stage, anyhow, the inevitable complaints had begun that Henderson might have moved sooner to draw attention to the horse's problem.
It is supremely impractical, of course, to expect trainers to advise the public of every imperfection in a horse's condition. Last year, indeed, Henderson did his utmost to do his duty by the betting public with Binocular – and ended up being accused of misleading them. True, the results of the first test were received on Thursday, which arguably provided an opportunity to raise the alarm, but analysis of further samples was not completed until Saturday night. The BHA was at pains yesterday to recognise not only that the problem traced to "a legitimate medication", but also that it was "against expectations" for the substance to be retained at a constant level. As it was, it was left with no choice but to advise him that Binocular would probably test positive on race day if allowed to take his chance. In a statement, the BHA added: "This is obviously bitterly disappointing for connections and also for backers of Binocular but based on all the information to hand, it is the only decision that could be taken in the interests of both the horse and the integrity of the sport."
In the absence of Binocular, Menorah was promoted to favourite in most lists. He faces just 10 rivals in a race that may not be run at the usual frantic gallop. Overturn – who represents the same connections as the unbeaten Peddlers Cross – could well have a crucial role as the only obvious source of pace.
Ruby Walsh was declared to ride Hurricane Fly, after all, in a significant vote of confidence from trainer Willie Mullins. Paul Townend, who had ridden the horse in seven of his eight previous starts, is switched to the stable's second string, Thousand Stars. Walsh rode his first winner since November at Sandown on Saturday, having returned from a broken leg only eight days previously. He had taken a heavy fall at Naas on Thursday and goes to Cheltenham with his right eye decorated by vivid contusions. His winner, Mon Parrain, proved on an absurdly generous mark for his British debut, even if his new trainer professed himself "astonished" by his performance. Regardless, Paul Nicholls was greatly relieved to see Walsh back in the winner's enclosure before the Festival. It was one less thing to worry about – but that, as Henderson could tell you, is not saying much.
Mister Matt (3.30 Plumpton)
Shaped well before failing to get home over a longer trip at Huntingdon a couple of starts ago and now drops back to a more suitable distance.
Daldini (3.40 Stratford)
Has slipped down the weights and, even though last of four finishers, looked ready to take advantage at Newcastle last time, doing well to finish as close as he did after setting an excessive pace in exhausting conditions.
One to watch
Forest Rhythm (Seamus Mullins) has discouraging form figures but may pop up at good odds soon, doing well to claim fourth at Wincanton on Thursday.
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