By Jon Lees
Star northern mare Lady Buttons will be reunited with her first-choice rider Adam Nicol at the Cheltenham Festival – subject to final checks of the back injury he suffered on Boxing Day.
Nicol is riding out for trainer Phil Kirby again, and has earmarked a return at the Ayr meeting on the Saturday before the Festival for his comeback.
The 30-year-old has ridden Lady Buttons to 12 of her 15 wins but missed her appearance at the 2019 Festival, when she finished fourth in the Mares’ Hurdle, because of a broken leg.
He feared history was repeating itself when he was told he would need to spend three months on the sidelines as a result of the damage caused by his fall at Sedgefield.
But spurred on by the opportunity to take his first Cheltenham Festival ride on public favourite Lady Buttons, Nicol is much more optimistic he will make it this time.
“Looking back now on last year, I had no chance really,” he said.
“I was trying to be positive in pushing through the pain barrier to get to Cheltenham, but it actually took until a good few months after that.
“I’m definitely more confident this time. I’m going to get an MRI scan and x-ray on March 4 – and if the results are good I will hopefully be cleared to ride at Ayr on March 7.
“It would be good to have a spin round there, and then Lady Buttons will run Tuesday or Wednesday at Cheltenham.
“It’s been a bit nip and tuck. It’s roughly 11 weeks since the fall, but I’ve ridden another two lots out this morning and felt really good.”
His recovery has gone well, but further scans will make sure all is as it needs to be.
Nicol added: “Everyone thinks the bone should be fine, but the MRI scan will reveal any soft-tissue damage – because it was a bad break.
“I have what they call a transverse process on my L4 vertebra, which hasn’t given me much pain. But I have a chance fracture (horizontal) in my L1 and I’ve been told to treat that with respect.
“I’ve been in the gym at Jack Berry House twice a day over the last three and a half weeks and will continue going once a day now I am riding out in the mornings.
“I’m very lucky that through the loyalty from the owners Jayne and Keith Sivills, and Phil, that I am still able to ride a horse as good as Lady Buttons.
“It keeps you going and is a great incentive to get back.”
Last year Nicol had to learn to walk without discomfort again as part of a 10-month recovery process – but he was back in time to steer Lady Buttons to her first win of the campaign in the Listed hurdle at Wetherby in November.
“I didn’t even get back for Aintree last year – it was a much slower process,” he said.
“I had a limp for a good long time and struggled to knock that out of my walk.
“I needed to learn to weight-bear again and how to be effective on a horse, by building up my muscle strength.
“It was a challenge. I don’t know how lads got back years ago without facilities like Jack Berry House. The rehab makes such a difference.”
Lady Buttons has a choice of races at the Festival – the Close Brothers’ Hurdle, for mares, or the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Nicol will just be happy to be there on her back, and does not mind which race is chosen.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.
“She seems in great nick. It’s going to be Phil’s decision as to which race she goes for. I think he is genuinely undecided.
“She jumps a fence really well, but you also saw how slick she was in the Grade Two hurdle at Doncaster last time.
“It wouldn’t worry me what she ran in. There are some cracking mares, but the Champion Chase looks very competitive too.”