We are absolutely thrilled to have Rory Delargy (@helynsar) on board as our "Irish Columnist" this season. For his first article, Rory picks out five Festival dark-horses to watch closely when they make the trip from Ireland to Cheltenham next month...
Everyone with a passing knowledge of recent racing history will expect Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott to have a major say in the distribution of prizemoney at Cheltenham in March, but it is a naïve man who believes that only these two yards should be given serious consideration when running the rule over the contenders, and there were no less than five winners from other Irish stables at last year's Festival.
So who are the horses from the less-fashionable Irish yards who should be noted this time around? There are plenty, and some of them need little introduction such is the strength of their claims. Here are five of the less obvious ones:
Mall Dini (Pat Kelly)
It might be a little cheeky to include last year's Pertemps winner as a dark horse, but trainer Pat Kelly, who trains this son of Milan for Philip Reynolds is a shrewd operator, and there is no doubt that Mall Dini is a fair bit better than he's shown over fences, his runs coming over trips short of what will be his optimum, and this ex-pointer jumps well enough (aside from a chance-ending mistake last time) to suggest he will be even better as a chaser than he was over timber.
His win in the Pertemps came off a BHA mark of 139, and the Irish handicapper has dropped him to 141 after his latest start. We need to wait until next week to discover what Phil Smith's assessment is, but it will be disappointing if he's more than a couple of pounds higher here than he is at home, in which case he would look very interesting in either the Ultima on Tuesday, or the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir on the New Course two days later.
Kelly has tended to seek the services of Davy Russell for him in the past, so the Ultima is the obvious race, but the stiffer test of the Kim Muir might actually suit better, so it will be intriguing to see what race is preferred. He's also in the National Hunt Chase on the opening day, but that looks an unlikely option.
Update: handed a BHA mark of 143 which puts him on an attractive weight for the Ultima and guarantees him a run in the Kim Muir – much as expected.
Mall Dini pictured on his way to winning the Pertemps Network Final at Cheltenham in 2016
Powersbomb (Brian McMahon) This is a more left-field suggestion, and with a Turf Club rating of 130, he could do with the BHA team being on the harsh side if he's going to make the cut for the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase on Tuesday of Cheltenham, but he wouldn't be out of place in terms of ability, his latest second in a competitive Leopardstown affair likely to have been a win but for a bad error at the second last fence – going into the fence he was travelling well in a narrow lead, but after propping badly on landing, found himself relegated to sixth.
The fact that he could battle back to regain the lead on the run-in says plenty for both his talent and resolution, and the only horse to come out of that race since has been successful. He has been transformed by a switch to front running over fences, and while the fact that he's hit the deck twice will put plenty off, it's notable that 50% of previous winners of this race had previously fallen over fences.
Brian McMahon could not be more obscure as a trainer, and the County Sligo handler was gaining his first winner over fences when Powersbomb won a maiden chase at Clonmel in December.
Update: Good news and bad news – a BHA mark of 138 guarantees him a run in the novices' handicap on Tuesday, while giving the option of the Festival Plate and/or Grand Annual too, but it does look pretty stiff on balance of form.
Scoir Mear (Tom Mullins) Tom Mullins has already got his name on the Festival roll of honour with Alderwood winning the County Hurdle in 2012 and the Grand Annual a year later, and like that horse, Scoir Mear is owned by JP McManus.
Having shown promise in bumpers under different ownership, the son of Exit To Nowhere was beaten an aggregate of 240 lengths on his first four starts over hurdles, but he's progressed well since switched to handicaps, overcoming an early tendency to runner-up ace freely in winning his first two starts this season, and he's run even better when second the last twice, giving the impression he would have been unbeaten this season under different circumstances, pressing on early enough when caught by the well-regarded Automated at Navan (the useful Gurteen fully twenty lengths back in third), and then given a bit too much to do when runner-up to Moores Road at Cork last time. He's guaranteed a run in the Coral Cup, and is one to take very seriously indeed.
Update: Handed a BHA mark of 138 as opposed to 135 in Ireland, and while I'd originally assumed he'd get in without much trouble, it's a very deep race meaning he may yet miss the cut. The one positive for ante-post backers is that if he's balloted out, you get your money back, so it may be worth taking a punt at a top-priced 25/1.
Presenting Percy (Pat Kelly) Pat Kelly has fewer runners than the majority of Irish trainers, but eight of his 49 runners in the last year have obliged, including Mall Dini at the Cheltenham Festival, and he's making an audacious to win back-to-back Pertemps Finals with Presenting Percy, who also sports the silks of Philip Reynolds.
The son of Sir Percy absolutely bolted up in a competitive handicap at Fairyhouse on Saturday, and while that win will serve notice to the British Handicapper as to how smart he is, it's no bad thing to advertise your well-being in the month before Cheltenham, and as long as he isn't hit with a rise of a stone or more, he looks to have a tremendous chance in Thursday's three-mile contest. The ground was heavy at Fairyhouse, but the six-year-old gelding has a good-ground action and ought not be inconvenienced by underfoot conditions whatever the weather does.
Update: Handed a 10lb rise by Noel O'Brien, but gets another 6lb on top of that to sit on a BHA mark of 146, and that leaves him very high in the weights, to the extent that Kelly is reconsidering sending him across. Sure to be bigger on the day than the ante-post market in any case, so best to wait for connections to commit him before considering any involvement.
Velvet Maker (Alan Fleming) On the face of it, Alan Fleming's Velvet Maker was disappointing in last year's Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, but it's clear watching a replay that he paid for being given an overly-aggressive ride by Adrian Heskin, and that is unlikely to be the case now that the ice-cool Denis O'Regan has taken over as owner Barry Connell's stable jockey, and the veteran rider is in his element when riding front runners.
Velvet Maker has only run once since last year's Festival, and shaped with loads of promise when third to Grand Partner at Leopardstown a couple of weeks ago, travelling like the best horse throughout but beaten by a combination of lack of fitness, a rare last-flight error and interference on the run-in. He is engaged in races over hurdles and fences, but the County Hurdle is fiendishly tough, whereas another crack at the Grand Annual looks a more realistic assignment, and he will arrive fresher than most.
Update: Rated 135 over timber, he is unlikely to make the cut in either the Martin Pipe or County Hurdle, but gets a handy 10-4 in the Grand Annual, and is 2lb lower than in 2016 for the same race. Plenty to like about that scenario, and Alan Fleming's inmate goes on the shortlist.