The Conditional, runner-up in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury last season before winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, is the new ante-post favourite for this year’s running of the race after Paul Nicholls was forced to rule out Topofthegame, the early 5-1 favourite, for the second season running on Monday.
Topofthegame was an impressive winner of the RSA Chase in March 2019 but has not been seen on a course since finishing second in the Mildmay Novice Chase at Aintree a few weeks later. He sustained a leg injury while being prepared for a return at Newbury last November and the same injury will keep him out until next autumn.
“The warning lights have been flashing for the last couple of weeks,” Nicholls said on Monday. “I was not happy with him last week and we had the vet scan him, and although there is no tear he just needs more time to recover, so we will leave him for the rest of the season and get him back for next season.
“He had the tendon injury last season and he is still not strong enough to do full training. If we had carried on he would have broken down but as we have stopped there is a good chance we will get him back for next season.”
In Topofthegame’s absence, it is now 10-1 the field for one of the biggest betting races of the season, with The Conditional heading the market alongside Harriet Graham’s Aye Right, with Vinndication (Kim Bailey) and Copperhead (Colin Tizzard) close behind on 12-1.
The Conditional is 10lb higher in the weights than he was when chasing home De Rasher Counter 12 months ago but David Bridgwater believes he still has the time and scope to find the necessary improvement and more.
“He’s only a young horse and not over-raced, so hopefully over the next year or so he should have more improvement in him,” he said. “We were umming and ah-ing over what to go in [at Cheltenham] but we ended up picking the right race [from the Ultimate and the Grade One RSA Chase].
“I think if we’d run him again somewhere after Cheltenham, the way he was, I’m pretty sure he would have won again, he was in superb form.”
The Conditional made a slight mistake at the final fence in last year’s Ladbrokes Trophy and also hit the second-last at Cheltenham, though he quickly regained the lost ground and is not, in any case, a horse that likes to be in front a long way from home.
“Had we jumped the last cleanly at Newbury, I think we would have been a better second,” Bridgwater said, “because De Rasher Counter won going away really. But we learned a lot about him when we ran at Warwick after that, and without that, we probably wouldn’t have won at Cheltenham.
“It takes a good horse to make the mistake that he did [at Cheltenham], and lose the ground that he did, and still be upsides at the last. I think if he’d winged the second-last and then winged the last like he did, and he was a horse that didn’t mind being in front, he’d probably gone and won five or six lengths. But if he’d done that, he’d have pulled himself up in front, and so it all worked out well and Brendan [Powell] was superb on him.”
The Ladbrokes Trophy and Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham are the biggest betting races scheduled for the latest national lockdown, when the closure of betting shops is expected to cost the sport at least £10m in revenue.
Bookmakers have put at least a small dent in the deficit, though, by agreeing to increase their media rights payments for online streaming of races until 2 December.
“We are very grateful to the betting industry for agreeing to pay increased fees for the next month, while most of Britain and Ireland will be locked down,” Julian Thick, Newbury’s chief executive, said. “This additional funding will be much valued by racecourses but it won’t plug the hole left by lost revenues from LBO closures for the next month.
“Make no mistake, racecourses are really suffering at the moment, and the return of crowds is absolutely critical to our operation, but we are grateful for the betting industry’s support throughout the difficulties of the Covid-19 crisis.”