The reigning Unibet Champion Hurdle hero Espoir D'Allen's season could be over before it has even begun after a "freak" accident at home left JP McManus's star "very lame and sore".
Having only returned to Gavin Cromwell's yard from his summer holidays just over a week ago, the five-year-old, whose 15-length trouncing of Melon at Cheltenham in March was a record winning margin, is now in Fethard Equine Hospital undergoing tests.
Cromwell told the Racing Post that the problem seemed to be in his off-front shoulder, but that the veterinary team in Fethard had yet to pin down the exact root of the injury.
"Last Thursday he had done a little canter and coming back in off the gallop he got spooked, reared up and fell over," Cromwell said of Espoir D'Allen, who has been as low as 3-1 ante-post favourite to retain his Cheltenham crown.
"He is in Fethard Equine Hospital and we still haven't found what's wrong with him, but it looks like he is going to be out for the season.
"He got a slap off the ground and the issue seems to be around his shoulder, but they are still trying to pin the problem down.
"He is very lame and sore on his right front side and he hasn't improved since he went down there. They are still doing tests on him to try to find the problem and the vets don't seem very optimistic of him making a speedy recovery."
Bookmakers reacted by making the Willie Mullins-trained Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Klassical Dream the 7-2 Champion Hurdle favourite, with McManus's 2017 and 2018 winner Buveur D'Air next best in the betting at around 6-1.
In the event that Espoir D'Allen does miss the Cheltenham Festival in March, he will obviously be denied the opportunity to emulate the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D'Air, who crashed out at the third flight when bidding for his hat-trick last March under Barry Geraghty.
Despite going unbeaten in three Grade 3s last winter, Espoir D'Allen was sent off at odds of 16-1 for the Champion Hurdle, with punters honing in on Buveur D'Air, Apple's Jade and Laurina.
However, he eclipsed them all by producing one of the most devastating visual performances in the history of the race under Mark Walsh, vindicating Cromwell's decision to go for the big prize, providing the County Meath-based trainer with his first festival success.
"It’s a massive blow for everybody in the yard and it was just one of those freak things," Cromwell added.
"It could happen 20 times and they'd end up with no injury. He is a lovely natured horse, but he can be sharp when he's fresh so there is always the potential for him to do something like that."
Speaking on Tuesday, Henderson had nothing but sympathy for Cromwell and McManus following their deflating news.
He said: "As any trainer knows, there is always something around the corner and it's dreadful for JP and Gavin, who had a Champion Hurdle horse and then suddenly something goes wrong, which it can do any day of the week.
"It shows how fickle the whole game is and I feel desperately for them. Yes, I'm sitting on some Champion Hurdle horses, but JP wouldn't look at it that way either. I know him and he'll be feeling very sympathetic towards Gavin because to him this horse is very special."
Henderson, whose record Champion Hurdle haul of seven includes three with See You Then, added: "You think a Champion Hurdle horse in Buveur D'Air might have fallen away, but actually at Punchestown he put his name back in; it just shows how it goes. There are ups and downs and you never know when something will bite you. That's why we love it, but sometimes we hate it too.
"All I can say is I hope they manage to get him back and the most important thing is the horse. I'm extremely sorry for them and we hope he makes a full recovery."
Buveur D'Air is the shortest-priced Henderson-trained contender for the Champion Hurdle, although Grade 1-winning stablemates Pentland Hills (12-1) and Fusil Raffles (16-1) must also be considered prospects for hurdling's most prestigious contest. All three are back at Seven Barrows, with plans for last season's juveniles unconfirmed.
"We haven't really discussed it, but I would have thought Buveur would go to Newcastle for the Fighting Fifth, which has been his bog-standard road for the last two years, but we've also got to fit in the two four-year-olds and see where we are," Henderson added.
"Nobody knows how good they are. They're unbeaten for us and have won Grade 1s – one of them might be a Champion Hurdle horse, I've no idea."
Henderson went on to suggest Verdana Blue's jumping days could be behind her with the DFS Park Hill Stakes at Doncaster's St Leger meeting on September 12 her next target.