Another setback for Mullins as Arctic Fire ruled out of Champion
Seven days after reigning champion Faugheen was forced out of his Champion Hurdle team, Willie Mullins suffered another blow yesterday with able deputy Arctic Fire also ruled out through injury.
Having chased home Faugheen in last year's renewal and in last month's Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, Arctic Fire looked a major contender for top honours next month following last week's shock news that Faugheen would miss the remainder of the season after suffering a setback.
However, Mullins confirmed last night that Arctic Fire would not be making the journey.
The champion trainer said on Twitter: "Unfortunately, #ArcticFire is out of @CheltenhamRaces. It looks like he has a little chip off a sesamoid bone which will need to be removed."
As for the rest of the field, Sam Twiston-Davies will make his own decision on whether he rides The New One or Old Guard in Cheltenham's opening-day feature.
Twiston-Davies rode the Paul Nicholls-trained Old Guard in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the first time he has not ridden The New One, trained by his father Nigel, in 22 races up to that point.
He was back on board The New One at Haydock last time out and Nicholls has said that he will not put any pressure on the rider to team up with Old Guard.
"Sam's got the choice. If Sam rides The New One, Nick Scholfield rides Old Guard, simple as that. It's up to Sam on the day and it's not a problem," said the Ditcheat maestro.
Another horse which definitely won't be heading to Cheltenham is former Foxhunter chase hero Salsify, according to trainer Rodger Sweeney.
The 11-year-old is not qualified for this season's renewal and while there's technically still time for Salsify to put his name in the frame, Sweeney has decided not to rush the 2012 and '13 hero.
The conditions of the race state a horse has to finish either first or second on two occasions in a hunter chase, or have won two open steeplechases at a point-to-point meeting in Britain or Ireland between October 1, 2013 and March 1, 2016.
Off the track from December 2013 to last February, Sweeney tried to get Salsify qualified by running twice this month.
However, he was only third at Leopardstown on his first start since being pulled up in the Foxhunter last March, and although he bounced back to winning ways at in a hunter chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday, Sweeney is not keen to go to the well once more in a point-to-point this weekend, effectively ruling him out of the Festival.
"He's not qualified to go there. We are disappointed, but rules are rules and there's no way out," said the Co Cork trainer.
"We'd have to run him next Saturday or Sunday and then nine days later he'd have to be loaded on the boat to England. It's just too near. I'd be an idiot if I got him beat, and he'd have to win this weekend anyway.
"He was third at Leopardstown and if he'd been one spot closer he would have qualified for Cheltenham."
Former Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton is still clinging to her Festival dream and is set for a schooling session aboard Pacha Du Polder on Monday ahead of her second ride in a hunter chase at Wincanton two days later.
Her unceremonious exit at Fakenham put into question her aim of riding in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham in three weeks' time and Nicholls describes her appearance at Wincanton as a "big day".
"She was so nervous at Fakenham with all the pressure on her compared to riding in point-to-points," said the trainer. "It is hard but unfortunately it's something that we've to deal with."