Donn's Festival Dark Horses
Our Irish expert Donn McClean finds five dark-ish horses for the Cheltenham Festival and tries to unpick a little ante-post value in the process.
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Define dark. Like, how dark do these horses have to be? Black Hercules, said Ruby Walsh when he was asked recently. He's almost black. (The clue was in the name.) Is that dark enough for you?
We will be having a look at the handicappers next week, who, by definition, are at least on the dark side, if not quite in line to audition for Black Beauty. So here are (definition:) five Irish non-handicappers who may be a little under the radar at present and, therefore, who may be at least a little over-priced.
Djakadam (Trainer: Willie Mullins)
Djakadam was just a rung below the top juvenile hurdlers last season. He didn't make it to Cheltenham for the Triumph Hurdle or the Fred Winter, choosing instead to go to Limerick the following week and win a juveniles' contest there at odds of 1/6.
Fourth behind three stable-companions in the Grade 1 Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, he is built and bred to be a staying steeplechaser, and he has looked good in both his runs over fences to date.
At Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, he stayed on strongly over two miles and three furlongs to get the better of the more-experienced pair Si C'Etait Vrai and Minsk. Then he went back to Leopardstown on Irish Champion Hurdle day, stepped slightly up in distance and significantly up in class, and duly beat the highly-regarded Bright New Dawn (who was impressive in winning at Navan on Sunday), with the pair of them clear of the talented Mullaghanoe River.
As a five-year-old, Djakadam was receiving 11lb from his elders in both his chases to date, and that will be significantly reduced by the time the Cheltenham Festival rolls around (to 1lb if he runs in the JLT Chase, or to 2lb if he contests the longer RSA Chase). But he could be maturing and progressing with experience at a rate that is faster than the degree by which his allowance is being reduced.
Like the majority of the Willie Mullins novices (hurdlers as well as chasers), his Cheltenham target and some of his stable companions' Cheltenham targets are interdependent, but the JLT Chase could be the race for him in 2014. Longer term, he could be a really exciting staying chaser for the future.
Tiger Roll (Trainer: Gordon Elliott)
It is understandable that all the attention after the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennsssy day centred around the winner Guitar Pete. Dessie Hughes' horse is a wholly likeable sort with a willing attitude who jumps hurdles well. However, the quality of the performance that Tiger Roll put up in chasing him home may have gone a little under the radar.
The Gigginstown House horse came under pressure on landing over the second last flight that day, but he found plenty for that pressure, getting to within two lengths of Guitar Pete at the line and drawing almost four lengths clear of Plinth and Ivan Grozny. And but for a mistake at the final flight, he would have got even closer to the winner.
That was just the Authorized gelding's second ever run, and it was his first for Gordon Elliott. Winner of a maiden hurdle at Market Rasen for Nigel Hawke on his racecourse debut in November, he improved from that run to Leopardstown, and it is reasonable to expect that he will improve again now with his latest run under his belt. He could run in a Grade 2 juveniles' contest at Fairyhouse this Saturday, and that would give him a little more experience, which would be no burden to carry to Cheltenham.
It is significant that his trainer maintained that he was a Triumph Hurdle horse after his Leopardstown run. There was no sign of thoughts of defection to the Fred Winter, despite the fact that Elliott trained last year's Fred Winter winner Flaxen Flare, who had finished fifth in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle on his final run before Cheltenham.
Baily Green (Trainer: Mouse Morris)
Baily Green is one of those horses who is often a little under the radar. Even as he was clocking up that remarkable seven-race unbeaten run between May and November 2012, he was sent off as favourite just twice.
Mouse Morris's horse ran out of his skin to chase Simonsig home in the Arkle last year when he was the only one to give Nicky Henderson's horse any kind of a race. That is his only run at the Cheltenham Festival to date, and he proved that he can excel under Festival conditions.
His two best runs this season so far have been over two and a half miles. He got close to Sizing Europe a Grade 2 contest at Gowran Park in October, and he split Texas Jack and Last Instalment in a three-way-thriller in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles last month.
You can forgive him his most recent run in a handicap hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennessy day as, although his hurdles rating is 25lb lower than his chase rating, it was his first run over hurdles since September 2012 and the ground was softer than ideal.
Back on better ground at Cheltenham, back at a track that he handles well, he could out-perform market expectations by a fair way.
Sure Reef (Trainer: Willie Mullins)
Speak of Willie Mullins' novice hurdlers and you speak of Faugheen, Briar Hill, Vautour, Wicklow Brave. You might have to go a fair way down the list before you get to Sure Reef.
Winner of three handicaps on the Flat for Michael Halford in 2012 and ending that season with a rating of 90, the Choisir gelding's hurdling career got off to an inauspicious start when he unseated his rider at the first flight at Punchestown last November.
He has won his only two races since, however. He stayed on nicely to win his maiden hurdle over two and a half miles at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, and he stepped forward from that to win a Grade 2 contest over the same course and distance on Irish Champion Hurdle day.
There was a lot to like about that performance. He was keener than ideal through the early stages of the race, and he got a little left behind with a deliberate jump at the second last as the pace quickened. Last of the six runners as they rounded the home turn, he stayed on gallantly on the near side to get up and win by three parts of a length, with two useful performers in Moonshine Lad and Gilt Shadow behind him in second and third.
There is lots of stamina on his dam's side, but he is by Choisir and he does not lack gears, as he showed last time at Leopardstown, picking up impressively off what was a sedate early pace. He could be a Neptune horse or he could be an Albert Bartlett horse but, wherever he goes, it might be worthwhile keeping him on your list.
Morning Assembly (Trainer: Pat Fahy)
Finally, it may be a little incongruous to be putting up the third favourite for the RSA Chase as a dark horse. However, Morning Assembly is in danger of becoming a little bit of a forgotten horse now, simply because we haven't seen him in 2014 and, the last time we did see him, he was beaten.
That defeat was in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival at the hands of Carlingford Lough, and there was no major disgrace in it. John Kiely's horse was just tougher on the run-in, his experience (11 chases) appearing to come to the fore over Morning Assembly's lack thereof (two chases).
The Shantou gelding remains a hugely exciting chasing prospect. An impressive winner of his beginners' chase at Punchestown in October, he battled on bravely to beat subsequent Drinmore Chase winner Don Cossack in the Florida Pearl Chase back at the Kildare venue in November. And remember that he won the Grade 1 three-mile novices' hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last season, when he had Ballycasey seven lengths back in third. He remains a big player in the RSA Chase picture.
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