Setback rules out leading JLT fancy Willoughby Court from festival
Willoughby Court, long-time ante-post favourite for the JLT Novices' Chase, will miss the Cheltenham Festival after suffering a setback and will instead be aimed at Aintree or Punchestown.
News emerged on Monday that Willoughby Court, who provided trainer Ben Pauling with a breakthrough festival success when landing last year's Neptune Novices' Hurdle, was a doubt for Cheltenham after poison was discovered in his foot. On Tuesday Pauling reckoned it was 70-30 his stable star would miss the meeting.
His absence was confirmed on Wednesday and Jason Maguire, racing manager to owners Paul and Clare Rooney, said: "Willoughby Court misses Cheltenham. It's obviously disappointing but Paul and Clare didn't want him to run unless he's 110 per cent. He'll now be aimed at Aintree or maybe Punchestown.
"It was only a small problem but it just came at the wrong time and we didn't want to rush him."
The news caps a rollercoaster week for the owners, who last Friday saw their leading Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle hope If The Cap Fits ruled out of Cheltenham the day before Master Dee put in a magnificent display to triumph in the valuable Betdaq Handicap Chase at Kempton.
The Rooneys could yet have a big festival contender in The Last Samuri, who is one of 21 possibles for the Cross Country Chase, entries for which were made on Wednesday.
The 2016 Grand National runner-up has a lofty rating of 159, marking him a notch above those who compete in the Cross Country, and is even rated 7lb higher than last year's impressive winner Cause Of Causes.
Trainer Kim Bailey revealed that the intention is to run The Last Samuri at Cheltenham en route to another crack at the Randox Health Grand National, but the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup also remains an option.
Regarding running plans, Bailey said: "It's up in the air really, but he went to Cheltenham last week to school around the [cross country] course and jumped very well.
"The owners are happy to have both options open and will decide nearer the time."
The Cross Country has been used as an effective stepping stone to the Grand National in the past. Maguire pointed out that he finished second aboard Silver Birch at Cheltenham prior to that horse triumphing in the 2007 Grand National. Last year Causes Of Causes finished runner-up at Aintree after winning at the festival.
On Wednesday entries were also made for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle and St James's Place Foxhunter Chase. The weights were also revealed for the ten Festival handicaps.
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