Binocular ruled out as Ruby gets nod to ride 'Hurricane'
For the second year in a row, Binocular became embroiled in an 11th hour Champion Hurdle turnaround, as the reigning champion hurdler yesterday failed to appear in the list of final declarations for tomorrow's Grade One at Cheltenham.
A high-class line-up of 11 also revealed that Ruby Walsh, who rode his first winner since returning from a four-month lay-off with a broken leg at Sandown on Saturday, will take over from Paul Townend on leading Irish fancy Hurricane Fly.
The question of which of the two jockeys would ride the Willie Mullins-trained hurdler on his Cheltenham debut had been a matter of increasing debate in recent weeks.
Speculation over the weekend suggested that Walsh would indeed replace Townend, who has won six Grade Ones on Hurricane Fly, including four since Walsh last rode the horse in a race at Punchestown two years ago.
Explaining the decision, Mullins said: "I ran it by the owners and spoke with Ruby and with Paul, who will now ride our other Champion Hurdle runner Thousand Stars.
"Ruby is our No 1 rider and it's good that he is fit and back in action and among the winners again."
Binocular's defection, however, was the main talking point following the 48-hour confirmation stage.
Nicky Henderson, who trains the horse for JP McManus, stated that his seven-year-old, which had been outright favourite to retain his crown, had received a course of prescribed medication to treat an allergy two weeks ago.
Following another horse in the stable returning a positive post-race test for the same substance, Henderson requested that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) carry out sample tests on Binocular. The BHA yesterday reported that the first test showed a positive result on Thursday, and that subsequent samples continued to do so.
As a result, Henderson said yesterday that he felt he had little option but to take the BHA's advice and not declare Binocular for tomorrow's race.
Despite initially believing that the horse's system would be cleared of the medication in a matter of days, he acknowledged that a post-race test would inevitably come back positive.
Twelve months ago, Henderson received criticism for misleading punters when he announced just days ahead of the race that Binocular would run in the 2010 Champion Hurdle, despite having earlier ruled the horse out due to below-par performances. Binocular had briefly returned to McManus's Martinstown Stud in Limerick to recuperate, but was back in Henderson's Lambourn stable a fortnight before the race.
In light of that debacle, it is incredible that Henderson, along with the BHA, neglected to mention anything last week about their concern surrounding Binocular's participation in this year's race.
A BHA statement yesterday claimed that the reason they had not felt the need to do so was that all bookmakers had gone 'non-runner no bet' by the time they were in a position to say anything, but that is not the case, and neither does it show any regard to betting exchange punters.
Various leading firms only went 'non runner no bet' after yesterday's declarations, so punters who had backed Binocular with those firms in recent days will feel short-changed, as will anyone backing the horse on the exchanges.
Shortly after the news broke yesterday, the BHA's spokesman Paul Struthers responded to widespread condemnation of the way events were handled by admitting on Twitter: "Given response I'm minded to think you're right and we/I got this one wrong."
In other Cheltenham news, Edward O'Grady has been forced to rule Tranquil Sea out of Thursday's Ryanair Chase. Tranquil Sea had been one of the main Irish contenders for the 2m 5f Grade One, but a poor scope means that his next engagement is now likely to be at Aintree in April.
Meanwhile, 3mm of rain on Saturday night saw the official going at Cheltenham ease slightly. Having been good, good to soft in places, it is now good to soft, good in places, with only a small section of the cross-country course still being watered.