Having chased home stable companion Faugheen in last year’s renewal and in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, Arctic Fire looked a major contender for top honours next month following last week’s shock news that Faugheen would miss the remainder of the season after suffering a setback.
However, Willie Mullins’s hopes of retaining the hurdling crown have been dealt another major blow, with the champion trainer confirming last night that Arctic Fire would not be making the journey to Prestbury Park.
Mullins said on Twitter: “Unfortunately, #ArcticFire is out of @CheltenhamRaces.
“It looks like he has a little chip off a sesamoid bone, which will need to be removed.”
The news means Mullins’s Nichols Canyon is now rated 9/2 joint second favourite with Identity Thief behind Annie Power (7/4).
Earlier, Rodger Sweeney admitted his dream of winning the St James’ Place Foxhunter Chase for a third time with Salsify had been dashed, as the 11-year-old is not qualified for this season’s renewal.
Although technically there is still time for Salsify to put his name in the frame, Sweeney has decided not to rush the 2012 and 2013 hero.
The conditions of the race state a horse has to finish either first or second on two occasions in a hunter chase, or have won two open steeplechases at a point-to-point meeting in Britain or Ireland between October 1, 2013, and March 1, 2016.
Off the track from December 2013 to last February, Sweeney tried to get Salsify qualified by running twice this month.
However, he was only third at Leopardstown on his first start since being pulled up in the Foxhunter last March and though he bounced back to winning ways at in a hunter chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday, Sweeney is not keen to go to the well once more in a point-to-point this weekend, effectively ruling him out of the festival.
“He’s not qualified to go there. We are disappointed, but rules are rules and there’s no way out,” said the Co Cork trainer.
“We’d have to run him next Saturday or Sunday and then nine days later he’d have to be loaded on the boat to England. It’s just too near.
"I’d be an idiot if I got him beat and he’d have to win this weekend anyway. He was third at Leopardstown and if he’d been one spot closer he would have qualified for Cheltenham. We’d love to go back there and do it again.”
Having admitted defeat in the race to get Salsify to his beloved Cheltenham, Sweeney could now take him to Aintree to run in the Crabbie’s Fox Hunters Chase over the Grand National fences for the first time.
“We’ll probably train him for Aintree now. He’s qualified for there. He’ll run first at Gowran on March 5th,” he said.
“He’s a very good jumper, but you never know if they will take to the place until you have a go.”