Injury rules Solwhit out of Cheltenham
Byrnes' star misses chance to defend 'World' title
CHARLES BYRNES has been forced to accept defeat in his quest to get the injury-plagued Solwhit fit in time for a defence of his World Hurdle crown at Cheltenham in March, prompting a further strengthening of Annie Power's position in the ante-post market for the three-mile feature.
Byrnes' brilliant hurdler is an eight-time Grade One winner that returned from over two years off to bring the raiders' 18-year drought in the stayers' showpiece to an end under an exquisite Paul Carberry steer last March.
He readily followed up in the Liverpool Hurdle, though was denied the opportunity to complete a Triple Crown at Punchestown in April when Davy Russell spotted blood in his nose before an eagerly anticipated clash with Quevega.
The champion jockey was reunited with his old partner when they finished second in the French Champion Hurdle in June, but the 10-year-old's injury curse struck again when he was found to be lame on the morning of his intended return at Leopardstown over Christmas.
While that was an ominous development for a horse with his history, at the time Byrnes expressed his hope that his syndicate-owned stable star might recover promptly from what he described as a sprained fetlock.
The Limerick handler hasn't ruled out getting Solwhit back on track this term, but his absence from Cheltenham is another cruel blow for Russell, who was demoted from his position as first jockey to the powerful Gigginstown House Stud battalion last week.
"I don't know if he will be back later in the year -- we'll see, as it is not a serious injury," Byrnes was reported as saying yesterday.
"He hasn't improved and we had to make a decision to give him six weeks' box rest. Cheltenham is definitely out and, with the ground possibly drying out at Punchestown, we'll make a decision before then as to whether it's worthwhile or not to go there. He will definitely be back next year."
Willie Mullins says that no decision will be made on Annie Power's Cheltenham target until nearer the time. However, since her Prestbury Park triumph over two-miles-five furlongs on January 1, the market has made up its own mind, with the unbeaten daughter of Shirocco's odds for the Champion Hurdle drifting from as low as 7/1 last Saturday to as big as 12/1 with Paddy Power yesterday.
In the same period, World Hurdle sponsors Ladbrokes have slashed her from 7/1 to 3/1 for the longer championship event, with the 11-year-old four-time hero Big Buck's their 7/4 favourite, despite having not raced since December 2012.
Ruby Walsh, deeply familiar with both horses, yesterday reiterated that Annie Power's Festival aim remains uncertain, though he confirmed that Mullins' fellow World Hurdle candidate Big Buck's is likely to stay over flights for now.
"I honestly don't know what race would be best for her," Walsh said of the precocious mare. "She travelled really well (at Cheltenham) and jumped nicely apart from the last, which she got under, but I was impressed with the way she gathered herself up after it and got going again very quickly.
"Zarkandar is a good yardstick; he's been second to Annie Power twice this year and second to The New One and last year he beat Rock On Ruby and Grandouet in the International.
"Annie Power has beaten him comfortably twice, but the one advantage she's always going to have is the 7lb allowance and it is going to take a good gelding to give her 7lb and a beating, be it two miles or three miles.
"Willie won't have the discussion about her Festival race for another six, seven or eight weeks. She'll have another run before then and will maybe answer a few more questions then."
The name of the champion trainer, who has declared Vesper Bell for tomorrow's Betfred Classic Chase at Warwick, appeared alongside two of the nine Irish entries for the Queen Mother Champion Chase yesterday.
Twinlight, which is in at Kempton tomorrow, is one of 26 overall entries for the ultimate speed-chasing test, with Arvika Ligeonniere now in all three of the championship events over fences after the Gold Cup entrant was also unveiled alongside 42 others for the Ryanair Chase.
Henry de Bromhead's 2011 two-mile kingpin Sizing Europe is in both the Champion and Ryanair, as are last year's Tony Martin-trained Jewson victor Benefficient and John 'Shark' Hanlon's Dial-A-Bet Chase second Hidden Cyclone.
The respective 2012 winners Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card have both been give the option of repeat successes.
Mouse Morris has also put Cue Card's closest Ryanair victim First Lieutenant in the two-mile-five-furlong contest again, though both horses are being seriously considered for the Gold Cup this time.