LESS than seven weeks to go now until the Cheltenham Festival and for trainers everywhere it is one of the most nerve-wracking times of the year.
It has been a pretty good week on the whole for Cheltenham preparations, as we witnessed the return of Last Instalment and Dunguib, but, unfortunately, it is only inevitable that over the coming weeks we will hear of notable withdrawals.
Already, last year's winner Solwhit has been ruled out of the World Hurdle, Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs won't get the opportunity to go one better and Analifet is out of the Triumph Hurdle, for which she was favourite.
Flemenstar still won't get to see Cheltenham, as he too is out for the season, and Nicky Henderson has also been forced to rule out Simonsig, who was one of the horses that took last year's meeting by storm, while Monksland hasn't run in over a year but is as short as 12/1 for the World Hurdle.
That is a fairly all-star cast who will be nowhere near Cheltenham in the second week of March and then you have Sprinter Sacre, who is favourite for the Champion Chase, despite pulling up last time with an irregular heartbeat, and Big Buck's, who tops the list for the World Hurdle, despite not running since December 2012. It'll be interesting to see how he fares on his return this Saturday.
The above is a perfect example as to why Willie Mullins is not in a hurry to reveal which races his horses will run in at Cheltenham, Annie Power being the most notable subject of debate.
Don't forget, Hurricane Fly was forced to miss two Cheltenham Festivals and while it, thankfully, looks like he has matured beyond any of the setbacks he used to suffer, with horses you just never know.
Mullins and owner Rich Ricci are probably looking at the World Hurdle as an option too and if anything did happen to Big Buck's between now and Cheltenham how could they resist going for the World Hurdle?
The same goes for the novice ranks and with having so many horses for each division it would look likely that Mullins is going to have two or three in most of the novice races and again if only one of his novices fails to make it there, it could have a knock-on effect on other plans.
Meanwhile, the discussion over Un De Sceaux is slightly different. Most people are wondering just how good he can be and there is little doubt if he lines up at Cheltenham it will be in the Champion Hurdle.
However, there has to be a small chance that he may skip the Champion Hurdle this year. Un De Sceaux has only raced four times for Willie Mullins and never in graded company and could be in the Champion Hurdle scene for the next four years.
Could connections opt to go to Aintree instead and still come back for Punchestown which is a week later than normal this year? Well, of course they could, but whether they will or not we probably wont know for a while to come.
It's getting exciting, but a lot of water still has to pass under a lot of bridges yet.