Injury costs Rawnaq chance for Cheltenham

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Eclipse Award winner Rawnaq incurred a soft-tissue injury Friday morning and will miss the entire 2017 season. The Irish-bred 10-year-old was preparing for a trip to Britain in pursuit of a $500,000 bonus for winning the Iroquois Steeplechase and the Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham.

“It’s the way it goes,” trainer Cyril Murphy said Tuesday morning. “He’s got a soft-tissue injury, he exercised Friday morning and cooling out he didn’t seem right on further investigation we found that he has a problem.”

Owned by Irv Naylor, Rawnaq won three of four starts in 2016, including the Grade 1 Iroquois and Grade 1 Grand National.

“Everything had been going so well for so long, the weather was accommodating us, to get this close…we were prepared to go to England on February 1,” Murphy said. “He won’t run this year, there is optimism that he’ll be back but to bring back an 11-year-old … it’s tough to compete where he’ll have to run, it’s not impossible to be believing that he won’t have a chance to run again, that’s the reality of it, it’s gut-wrenching.”

Like all horse trainers, Murphy took a philosophical look at the disappointment.

“At the end of the day, they’re just flesh and blood, they’re not machines,” Murphy said. “There’s no upside to it, he can come back, but time is not on his side. We have optimism but you have to be realistic about it all.”

News of Rawnaq’s injury comes just days after his connections were presented the Eclipse Award for champion steeplechaser at Gulfstream Park. He won three of four starts in 2016, starting the season with victories in the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey in April and Iroquois in May before a break in the summer.

The victory in the 3-mile Iroquois over two international raiders Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon put him in line for a run at the Brown Advisory Iroquois-Cheltenham Challenge and its $500,000 bonus. The bonus is award to any horse that can sweep the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle in mid-March at the Cheltenham Festival and Iroquois, or vice versa, within a 12-month period.

Rawnaq returned from his summer freshening to win the Grand National Hurdle in mid-October at the Far Hills meeting, essentially locking up the Eclipse Award, before ending the season with a second in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup at Camden.

An Irish-bred son of Azamour, Rawnaq has won 11 of 52 career starts and earned $609,955.

Murphy planned to ship Rawnaq to England the first week of February to train at Neil Mulholland’s yard in Somerset. He’d hoped to prep the gelding at Fontwell Feb. 26 and lined up Jack Doyle, who rode Rawnaq in the Gwathmey and Iroquois before missing the fall season with injuries, for the mounts.