O'Neill forced to admit defeat with World hero
More OF THAT will not defend his World Hurdle crown at the Cheltenham Festival after Jonjo O'Neill accepted that he has lost the battle to get JP McManus' talented seven-year-old back on track this season.
A fortnight ago, O'Neill described the possibility of More Of That competing in the three-mile Grade One on March 12 as "unlikely" after it burst a blood vessel during a piece of work.
The Co Cork native had been keen to give the classy son of Beneficial every chance of returning to the scene of his finest triumph, but he conceded yesterday that the horse would not run again this term.
"More Of That unfortunately will not be going to Cheltenham as I am still not 100pc happy with him," O'Neill told racingpost.com.
"We had hoped that we were getting there as he had regained a bit of his old sparkle, but following another routine piece of work he was a bit flat and we have lost the race against time.
"More Of That is far too good a horse to risk unless he is spot-on so he will not run again this season. He will have a long break over the spring and summer and be back in the autumn."
A run of five successive victories culminated in More Of That inflicting a first defeat on Annie Power in an epic edition of the old Stayers' Hurdle at Prestbury Park 12 months ago.
However, the signs were ominous when he sported a tongue-tie for a first time on his return at Newbury in November, and he duly laboured home 25 lengths behind Medinas in third after being sent off at odds of 4/7.
"The writing was on the wall a few weeks ago, to be fair," admitted McManus' racing manager Frank Berry. "When he burst, we feared the worst."
Annie Power has endured her own frustrations since that memorable tussle last year. Willie Mullins' brilliant mare destroyed vastly inferior female opposition at Punchestown in May, but she has yet to race this term, having suffered a setback in December.
Mullins has stressed that she needs everything to keep going her way to ensure that she is fit for battle in a fortnight's time, and that the OLBG Mares' Hurdle rather than the World Hurdle has been her target all along.
While speculation will inevitably now focus on the possibility of Annie Power being rerouted to the World Hurdle, Mullins is expected to resist changing tack.
The mares' race is making its debut in its new guise as a Grade One, and Annie Power undoubtedly offers him the best chance of plundering it for a seventh time following Quevega's record-breaking feats.
On top of that, she can be especially keen, so the shorter two-mile-five-furlong trip is a better fit for her reappearance. Annie Power vies for World Hurdle favouritism with Paul Nicholls' duo Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar, and the sponsors trimmed her to 4/1 from 5/1 yesterday. However, she is a best-priced 8/1 with some firms, and is as short as 4/7 for the mares' contest.
Nicholls has also ruled Hinterland out of the Champion Chase, explaining yesterday that he too had bled when flopping at Kempton over Christmas. Mullins has suggested that the two-mile Grade One is likely to be Champagne Fever's target, though the longer Ryanair Chase remains an option.
While the bold-jumping grey bounced back to form with a superlative triumph in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park, he hasn't won over the minimum trip since scoring for a second time at the Festival in the 2013 Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
As big as 6/1 for the Champion Chase, Champagne Fever was chinned by Western Warhorse in last year's Arkle, but Ruby Walsh is optimistic that his Festival record will stand to him.
"He's in good form," Walsh confirmed. "There are a few class horses in there. Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, they are very good horses and both have had difficult campaigns.
"Dodging Bullets is the standard bearer and Mr Mole is a massive improver, but Champagne Fever's (Festival) record over two miles is very good - two from three - and he was impressive last week. So, in what looks an open enough contest, he'd be a very good ride."
Nicholls has also issued an upbeat bulletin on his Gold Cup favourite Silviniaco Conti. "He looks way better than he did this time last year," he declared. "I thought when he won the King George that was probably a career-best. He made the running and galloped on really strongly.
"Something he wasn't doing last year was finishing strongly. So we sorted out his gastric ulcers and the cheekpieces have got him jumping sharper. He looks fantastic in his skin and we've just go to get through the next 10 days."
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