The participation of Grey Abbey in the totesport Gold Cup on Friday remains in the balance, despite the front-running grey being one of 16 declared for the blue riband today.
The popular 11-year-old has been doubtful for the big race in recent weeks due to a swollen joint, and the possibility of fast ground at Cheltenham has added to trainer Howard Johnson’s concerns.
“He’s in hellish fettle. The lads say he is in brilliant form, but I’ve got a real puzzle with him over whether to run or not,” he said today.
“The more rain we get, the better it should be as it will take the sting out of the ground, but I am just not sure that he’s sound.
“He’s bandaged up all the time at home. The problem is with the check ligament on his off-fore.
“He’ll be retired at the end of this season whatever happens, but I would hate to think anything bad might happen to him in his final race after everything he has done over the years.
“I’ll have a look at him when he comes off the box and make my mind up when I’ve seen him.”
Beef Or Salmon is 100-30 favourite with the sponsors and will aim to make it third time lucky in the showpiece of the four-day Festival.
Michael Hourigan’s charge, a third-fence faller two years ago and fourth to Best Mate 12 months ago, was one of four Irish-trained runners declared at the final 48-hour stage.
Another strong fancy from the Emerald Isle is Kicking King, winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
He is trained by Tom Taaffe, whose father Pat partnered the mighty Arkle to a hat-trick of Gold Cup wins from 1964 to 1966.
“He’s in super form. He was absolutely mental on the gallops this morning and the horse is obviously very well at the moment,” Taaffe said.
Edward O’Grady’s Pizarro and the Willie Mullins-trained Rule Supreme complete the Irish contingent, although the latter has been declared as a precaution should he have a mishap early in tomorrow’s Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
With Best Mate, Kingscliff and Farmer Jack all out of the race, the Gold Cup has a particularly open look about it this year.
Kingscliff’s trainer Robert Alner will be represented by last year’s runner-up Sir Rembrandt, the mount of Andrew Thornton.
“I would like to see a little bit more rain, but you have to get on with it. He’s in good form. Friday can’t come soon enough the way things are going at the moment,” Thornton told Racing UK.
“He loves the track and he acts round here, so I’m sure he’ll give a good account of himself.”
Another horse bidding to go one better than in the past is Ferdy Murphy’s Truckers Tavern, second to Best Mate in 2003.
Martin Pipe has the strongest team numerically with four runners, headed by Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup winner Celestial Gold.
Therealbandit, Tiutchev and Venn Ottery, who runs in today’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, complete the champion trainer’s squad.
Paul Nicholls is double-handed with the 2003 Hennessy winner Strong Flow and Royal Auclair, while Peter Bowen also saddles two runners in Ballycassidy and Take The Stand.
Completing the line-up is rank outsider Astonville, trained by Michael Scudamore, who won the Gold Cup as a jockey on Linwell in 1957. His grandson Tom Scudamore takes the ride.
There was shock news earlier today when Farmer Jack, who was supplemented on Saturday at a cost of £17,500, died after suffering a suspected heart attack.
The Philip Hobbs-trained nine-year-old landed the Aon Chase and the Racing Post Chase on his last two starts and was a general 12-1 chance for the blue riband.
“It happened about 8.30am – he was having an ordinary canter and just dropped dead,” said Hobbs.
“We presume it was a heart attack, but at this stage we just don’t know.”
His intended rider Richard Johnson added: “We were looking forward to Friday’s race. Obviously there were still a few questions about him but we thought he could have had a good chance.
“I was just totally shocked to hear the news of his accident.”
Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, sponsors bet: 100-30 Beef Or Salmon, 7-2 Strong Flow, 4-1 Celestial Gold, 9-2 Kicking King, 8-1 Grey Abbey, 9-1 Sir Rembrandt, 11-1 Pizarro, 16-1 Therealbandit, 25-1 Tiutchev, 28-1 Royal Auclair, 33-1 Ballycassidy, 500-1 bar.