By Jon Lees
Adam Nicol fears time may be against him as he battles to recover from the broken leg that has put his Cheltenham Festival date with the hugely-popular northern mare Lady Buttons in jeopardy.
Nicol has not ridden since he shattered his femur in a fall at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day, after which he underwent surgery to stabilise his left leg with the insertion of a 46-centimetre rod.
He is pushing his body hard with regular visits to Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys’ Fund’s rehabilitation centre in Malton, gym sessions and physio, but acknowledges he may not make his assignment with the horse on which he has won 11 races.
The Phil Kirby-trained Lady Buttons is unbeaten in four starts this season over both hurdles and fences, and has the choice of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase or OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
“If it wasn’t for Lady Buttons I wouldn’t even be thinking about rushing back,” said Nicol.
“I am 29 now and have been riding since I was 16 and this is the first time I will have rode at the Cheltenham Festival. I’ve rode at Cheltenham four or five times and had a few winners at Aintree, but to actually go to the Festival with a horse that would give us a good spin round would be great.
“Of course when I have the opportunity to do it, this is what happens.”
He conceded: “I’m not writing it off, but there’s more chance I won’t make it. The physios at Jack Berry House seem confident I could be back. I am off the crutches now and walking about, but I am not riding out yet.
“I am in Jack Berry House four days a week. I am in the gym twice a day, get physio once a day and I am in the hydro pool for half an hour walking on the treadmill. At the end of every day I am knackered.”
By the time the Festival starts, Nicol will have been out of action for 10 weeks and he admits: “If anything is going to beat me, it’s the time.
“If it was the end of March I would be quite confident. I would like to be riding out for four or five days before Cheltenham and preferably would like to have a spin beforehand just to get a blow back into myself.
“The fitness doesn’t worry me too much because I am quite fit anyway. It’s just the case of is it going to come a week or 10 days too soon.”
Kirby is sitting on the fence as to which race to target.
He said: “We will leave her in both before we make a plan. I think the owners are keen to go for the Champion Chase and I’m keen to go for the race we have the best chance of winning, which looks like the Mares’.”
Tommy Dowson, who partnered Lady Buttons to her latest success in the Grade Two Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster, is a candidate to replace Nicol should he not make the Festival.
But having been ever present on Lady Buttons in all 24 of her previous jumps starts, Nicol admits it will be difficult to accept.
“When she won at Doncaster it was a bittersweet moment,” he said.
“I have won 11 races on the mare. I was delighted to see her win, but it was also quite hard for 10 minutes after because I wished it was me.
“I had ridden her every time over jumps, so to see someone else on her was difficult. I’m not going to lie – if I can’t ride her at Cheltenham, even if she finished last, not being a part of that will be quite difficult. But if I’m not riding I will go down for the day to support her.
“Phil is going to wait and see which race she runs in and leave it till nearer the time. If Laurina and Apple’s Jade go for the Champion Hurdle, the Mares’ Hurdle opens up for a her to run a good race.
“In the Champion Chase we have to beat Altior, but there is also Un De Sceaux and possibly Min too if she goes for that race.
“But I do think her optimum conditions is at two miles over fences. She has done nothing wrong over hurdles this season either so whatever race she runs in, she will run creditably well.”