Nicholls closes ranks
Statistics have been telling a tale for several weeks now and yesterday the man at the wrong end of them, Paul Nicholls, confirmed his concerns for the health of some of his Ditcheat charges.
England's six-times champion trainer has saddled just one winner this month -- Zarkandar at Newbury on Friday -- and all his 16 runners on Saturday lost. "It's fairly obvious we had a moderate weekend," he said, "and I have several horses coughing."
With the start of the Cheltenham Festival now in sight, the timing of any infection in the ranks could hardly be worse -- though one horse which seems unaffected is the yard's top celebrity, Kauto Star, due to run in the Gold Cup three weeks on Friday.
Nicholls, one of the most accommodating and helpful of his profession in disseminating information and updates, has been forced to close ranks, including the cancellation of tomorrow's pre-Cheltenham media day, an annual occasion when the chief contenders for the sport's showcase occasion are customarily paraded with pride.
This year, as well as the Gold Cup second favourite Kauto Star, they would have included such as Big Buck's, Zarkandar, Rock On Ruby, Al Ferof, Pearl Swan and Ranjaan. But under the circumstances, any disruption of their routine is best avoided.
"It's my duty now to leave no stone unturned as we prepare during the last three weeks before the Festival," said Nicholls, "and the horses and their owners must come first." One of those who pay the oats and vet bills, Clive Smith, has his fingers crossed for Kauto Star. "Everything is fine with him as far as we know," he said.
Nicholls fields three horses at his local track, Taunton, this afternoon. In all, 17 of his 85 runners this year have won, a strike rate of 14.5pc, compared with 23pc during November and December.
His chief rival, Nicky Henderson, is on a roll, with 37 winners, including seven since Friday, from 126 runners since the start of January, at 29pc. Nicholls and Henderson are joint-second in the market for top Festival trainer, behind Willie Mullins.
Of other leading stables, Alan King's is also on an upward curve ahead of Cheltenham. But one of its most progressive inmates, Hold On Julio, has failed to recover from his own bout of coughing to keep his date on Saturday at Kempton in the Racing First Chase, for which he has been replaced by Planet of Sound as favourite. Hold On Julio will now head straight for the JLT Chase at the Festival's opening session.
"He's on his way back," said King, "but Saturday will come just too soon."
Meanwhile, the British Horseracing Authority's new chief executive Paul Bittar will today outline plans to defuse the whip rule controversy before the Cheltenham Festival.
He will propose fresh amendments at a board meeting in a bid to prevent jumps racing's biggest meeting being overshadowed by the issue that has dogged the sport under both codes since last October.
"As Paul has already alluded to, the issues to be looked at are proportionality (of penalty to offence) and discretion in how it is implemented," said BHA spokesman John Maxse. "The intention is to address these issues before the Festival."
Nothing is expected to be finalised at the board meeting, which is the final summit scheduled before the Festival starts on March 13. However, it will still be possible to achieve the necessary agreement from a majority of the voting board once the details of the proposed amendments have been concluded.
"It will be a stretch beyond what is possible to have any proposal with i's dotted and t's crossed in place," Maxse added. The proposal is not in an advanced enough state for it to be signed off, but that does not mean that it cannot get through if everything is wholly approved."
Rules regarding use of the whip have been a continuing problem since the BHA introduced strict new regulations and penalties just a few days before Flat racing's new Champions Day at Ascot last October. The BHA have been working with the jockeys and other stakeholders to find a mutual agreement, but the issue has not gone away.
Only last week 16-times champion jockey Tony McCoy fell foul of the rules when handed a four-day ban after going one over the limit when forcing a dead-heat at Leicester. (© Independent News Service)
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.