Donn McClean: Five dark horses
Irish expert Donn McClean gives us five dark horses to watch out for at this year's Cheltenham Festival.
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Trainer: Dessie Hughes
Lyreen Legend was a high-class novice hurdler last season. Beaten just six lengths by subsequent Istabraq Hurdle winner Unaccompanied on only his third ever run over hurdles, he never finished out of the first three in six subsequent hurdle races, five of them at Grade 1 or Grade 2 level. He beat Jenari, finished second behind Monksland and behind Boston Bob, and rounded off the season by finishing a close-up third behind Dedigout and Colour Squadron in the two-and-a-half-mile Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. Yet, it was always as a staying chaser that Dessie Hughes' horse looked most likely to make his mark.
That notion has been given ballast by his early exploits as a novice chaser this term. On his debut over fences in October, he won a beginners' chase at Galway that has been a remarkably good pointer to the future, having been won in the past by Jessies Dream and China Rock. Second to Back In Focus in a Grade 2 contest on his second run over fences, he was in the process of running a big race in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival when he fell at the third last.
Reportedly a little stiff and sore after that run, and given a week on the easy list, he still ran a cracker in the Grade 1 Dr PJ Moriarty Chase back at Leopardstown on Hennessy day. He went on from Boston Bob halfway down the back straight that day and travelled like a likely winner before just getting outpaced by the speedier types on the run to the second last. He stuck to his task remarkably well after he was passed, however, and stayed on strongly all the way to the line to be beaten just a total of about a length.
It is reasonable to expect that he will progress again for that run. He raced like a horse who probably needed it at least a little, and his trainer probably faced a race against time to get him to the Moriarty after his fall in the Topaz Chase. That run should have put him spot on for Cheltenham. He jumps well, he stays, he can handle any type of ground and he has a touch of class. He would be a lively outsider in the RSA Chase, but he would be of even greater interest if he took his chance in the four-miler instead.
Trainer: Tom Taaffe
An 88-rated performer at one point for Paul Cole on the flat, Argocat progressed nicely last season as a novice hurdler, finishing a close-up third behind Shadow Catcher and Darroun, and in front of Edeymi, in what turned out to be a good juveniles' maiden hurdle at Punchestown on New Year's Eve, before winning his maiden at Thurles. He didn't run at all badly either when ninth behind Une Artiste in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle at last year's Festival.
Promising and all as he looked over hurdles though, he has looked even better in just four runs over fences this term so far, winning twice and finishing second once. That second was on his penultimate run at Galway at the end of October, when he gave Twinlight a bit of a fright, taking it up after the final fence and looking a likely winner before just giving best to Willie Mullins' horse up the hill, the pair of them coming miles clear, on ground that would probably have been softer than ideal.
Fitri Hay's horse's latest run in the Grade 2 Greenmount Park Chase at Limerick's Christmas Festival represented another significant step forward. His task was simplified by Mikael D'Haguenet's fall at the fifth last, but he travelled and jumped well the whole way, took it up from the useful Far Away So Close on the run to the second last fence and, despite a fairly significant mistake at the last, came right away to win easily, eased down.
Interestingly, that Greenmount Park Chase was won last season by last year's Jewson Novices' Chase winner Sir Des Champs, and that is apparently the race that Taaffe has in mind for Argocat at this year's Festival. Two and a half miles is probably his optimum trip over fences, he should improve for the better ground that he should encounter at Cheltenham, and he is an interesting outsider in the race.
Trainer: Willie Mullins
Fatcatinthehat didn't manage to win in five runs on the flat in 2011 over seven furlongs and a mile, but he looked like a different horse returned to the racetrack at the Galway Festival last August after being gelded and stepped up to a mile and a half, running out an impressive winner of a qualified riders' maiden under Patrick Mullins.
Just beaten by Crouching Harry on his debut over hurdles at Clonmel in December, he looked set to win his maiden at Punchestown on New Year's Eve, he was miles clear of his rivals when he just seemed to crumple on landing over the final flight after appearing to jump the obstacle well.
He made no mistake on his most recent run, however, when he easily landed the juveniles' maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Boylesports Hurdle day, clocking a time that was just over a second slower than the time that his stable companion Abbey Lane clocked in winning the Boylesports, despite the fact that he was eased down late on. He could take his chance in the Triumph Hurdle but, given the strength in-depth that Willie Mullins has in the juvenile hurdling ranks, it may be that he will run in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle instead and, as long as the British handicapper is not too harsh, he would be of significant interest in that if he did.
Horse: Glam Gerry
Trainer: Colm Murphy
Glam Gerry has become a little bit of a forgotten horse of late. A fast-finishing third behind Salut Flo in last year's Byrne Group Plate, he returned from his summer break to win the two-mile maiden on the flat at Navan that has been a seasonal starting point for such National Hunt luminaries as Macs Joy, Sweet Kiln, Back In Front and Hardy Eustace in the past.
He was quietly backed for the Racing Post Hurdle over two miles at Cheltenham in November on the back of that run, when he shaped encouragingly to finish fifth over a distance that was surely too sharp for him, and he didn't seem to fully see out the three-mile trip when well-backed for the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival.
An encouraging fifth in the Leopardstown Chase back at the Foxrock track last month on ground that should have been softer than ideal, on the first occasion on which he was ridden by his owner's new retained rider Danny Mullins, Colm Murphy apparently has the Byrne Group Plate in mind for Barry Connell's horse again this year. His Irish rating is now 1lb lower than the mark off which he finished third in the race last year and, if he can be asked for his effort a little earlier than last year, he could go even closer than he did then. He obviously goes well at Cheltenham and a fast-run race over two and a half miles on ground just on the easy side of good probably represents optimal conditions for him.
Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Impressive winner of his only completed point-to-point last May, Bonisland won his bumper and his maiden hurdle last autumn before being stepped up in grade to contest the Grade 2 Monksfield Hurdle at Navan last November. He looked a likely winner when he emerged from the fog in front that day on the run to the final flight before just getting outstayed up the hill by the useful pair Busty Brown and Seefood.
That race was run on heavy ground, as were his only two subsequent races back at Navan and at Thurles. He actually travelled really well for a long way in Ballycasey's race at Thurles the last time we saw him - he and the winner were the only two horses still on the bridle turning for home - before a combination of the heavy ground and the two-mile-six-furlong trip just seemed to find him out.
Out of a half-sister to Dawson City, who was really a good or fast-ground horse both on the flat and over jumps, and a half-brother to Morgan's Bay, whose best run by far to date has been on the only occasion on which he encountered good ground in an Aintree bumper, Bonisland should appreciate the better ground that he is likely to encounter at Cheltenham.
The Gigginstown House horse would be an interesting contender in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle if he took his chance in it, and that appears to be the plan at present. The race named after his former mentor has been high on Gordon Elliott's wish-list since its inauguration, and the trainer went mighty close to winning it last year with Toner D'Oudairies. That horse is actually higher in the betting for the race than Bonisland this year, but there is no question which is the darker of the two.
Two and a half miles on good ground off a fast pace should suit Bonisland well, and Keith Donoghue would be a significant asset in a conditional riders' race. Also, as well as having Toner D'Oudairies go so close last year (when their Make A Track was fourth), Gigginstown House won the Martin Pipe race two years ago with Sir Des Champs. It is a race that the all-conquering outfit obviously like, and Bonisland could be their main hope this year.