Like a chess grandmaster, trainer Donald McCain was plotting his next moves with the greatest of care, but, as any racehorse trainer knows, even the best laid plans can come unstuck.
McCain was sitting quietly, contemplating whether to run Champion Hurdle hope Peddlers Cross at Sandown or Ffos Las on Saturday, when the unexpected, and unwanted, news arrived. Peddlers Cross had coughed after a routine piece of work on McCain's gallops and all the planning had come to nothing.
"Peddlers Cross unfortunately gave a cough as he came off the gallops this morning. The end result is that he is highly unlikely to run this weekend and we will have to let him tell us what the next move is. This is a shame, and we will just have to play it by ear," said a disappointed McCain.
Overturn, another of McCain's smart hurdlers, which recently finished a gallant second to Binocular in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park, is entered in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las, but he too is now likely to miss this weekend.
Binocular is currently 3/1 favourite with the sponsor for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while Peddlers Cross, which beat him in the rescheduled Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newbury in November, is a top-priced 11/2.
McCain's comments are interesting because few other trainers would relish another head to head with the defending champion when the race that really counts is only next month.
The McCain family have become closely linked with the Grand National at Aintree after the exploits of Donald's father Ginger, who sent out Red Rum to win the race three times and also won it with Amberleigh House.
Donald trains the 10/1 ante-post favourite for this year's event, Ballabriggs, which is enjoying a successful spell of hurdling as part of his build-up. The 10-year-old is one of the 102 entries that were announced yesterday. McCain has also entered Sagalyrique and Katchaturian.
In contrast to the McCain family fortunes at Aintree, Paul Nicholls has had to endure a bleak time in the big race.
The five-times champion trainer has saddled 48 runners in the race during his career, but has yet to land the prize. This time around he has entered 10 horses, including last weekend's Cheltenham winner Neptune Collonges.
Don't Push It, which gave Tony McCoy his first win in the race last April, Welsh Grand National winner Synchronised and Aintree regular Can't Buy Time are Jonjo O'Neill's entries.
All three are owned by JP McManus, who also has Quolibet, Arbor Supreme and Quiscover Fontaine engaged in his quest for another victory.
David Pipe's 2008 scorer Comply Or Die could line up again as a 12-year-old, while the Evan Williams-trained State Of Play, mercurial talent Tidal Bay and Ferdy Murphy's Big Fella Thanks are other interesting contenders.
Notre Pere finished fifth over the National fences in November's Becher Chase and is set to return to Merseyside for the big one on April 9. The 10-year-old has recently moved from Jim Dreaper to the care of Barry Potts.
Among the other Irish-trained entries are the Edward O'Grady-trained Tranquil Sea, winner of the Grade One John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on his latest start, Noel Glynn's stable star Becauseicouldntsee, the Martin Lynch-trained Oscar Time and Gordon Elliott's Backstage, which unseated his rider in the 2010 race.
Weights for the race, run on April 9, will be unveiled on February 15. (© Daily Telegraph, London)