Can Percy defy his prep and prove Kelly a genius?

Presenting Percy and Davy Russell on their way to victory in the Grade 2 John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle in January, but the form is not worth a hill of beans when just over two lengths covered the top four horses. Picture: Healy Racing

Seriously, can Presenting Percy actually win the Cheltenham Gold Cup off an utterly unorthodox preparation?

He is the most popular National Hunt horse in training in this country, we are led to believe, and there is a aura surrounding him that has much to do with the fact he is trained by the reclusive Pat Kelly at Athenry in Co Galway.

The word “genius” is now sometimes used to describe Kelly, while Presenting Percy, apparently, has taken over from the mighty Danoli as the new “people’s champion”. Kelly has been around for a long time and his reluctance to have truck with the press is legendary at this stage. You will see him quoted on an odd occasion, but he does seem more than selective when choosing to whom he should speak.

That is, I suppose, his own business, though if everyone in racing took a similar line it be a total disaster for the game.

In any case, circumstances have dictated Presenting Percy will challenge for the Gold Cup on March 15 without having a run over fences this season.

Much of that has had to do with the fact the ground has been so quick throughout most of the campaign, but that was not the case when the eight-year-old missed the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday, February 19. The surface was described as yielding to soft, yielding in places, which one would have thought was ideal for Presenting Percy.

There was no indication, on the lead-in to the contest, there was even the remotest possibility of the horse missing the race.

However, come declaration time on the Friday morning and there was no sign of Presenting Percy. The Scarlet Pimpernel was on the missing list one more time.

Various reasons were put forward for the non-appearance: Kelly wanted to give the horse more time and the ground at Gowran was “too rough”. None of the reasons offered made a huge amount of sense. Remember, the Gowran race was around the same time the equine flu outbreak occurred in Britain.

Excuse my cynicism, but wasn’t there the real possibility that, in order to be able to run at Cheltenham, it may have been necessary to give Presenting Percy a flu jab. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, and may be one and one and coming up with 97. Just food for thought, that’s all.

Essentially, it was strange Presenting Percy did not travel down the same route that proved so successful a year earlier. After all, he went to Gowran then for the Red Mills and was beaten a length into second by the 7lbs conceding Our Duke.

It left him spot-on for the festival and he strolled to victory, by seven lengths, from Monalee in the RSA Chase.

After missing the Red Mills, last Sunday’s Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse was touted as a possible much-needed outing for Presenting Percy.

We were told his participation was 50-50, but I would have been more than surprised had he turned up. Once the ground rode relatively quick, as it did, then he was a 1000-1shot to take part.

Last season, Presenting Percy ran on five occasions before Cheltenham, four of them over fences.

That was simply ideal.

Five runs this campaign, however, wasn’t even remotely realistic, because of the ground, but having only one, over flights, is a major worry.

Presenting Percy is owned by Philip Reynolds, son of former Taoiseach, Albert, and, in contrast to Kelly, is never less than accommodating when it comes to the press. Reynolds is good for racing and, in Presenting Percy’s regular rider, Davy Russell, has the perfect partner. Russell is never short of a word either and, like Reynolds, could hardly be more helpful when it comes to the press.

Both men have expressed their satisfaction with Presenting Percy’s wellbeing and confidence that Kelly will get it exactly right on the day. What else would you expect, but deep down they surely harbour reservations!

Presenting Percy will arrive to Cheltenham on the back of scrambling to victory in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park on January 24. We are well aware the horse proved the engine very much remains intact, the main purpose of the exercise, but it is worth noting that beating Bapaume, Killultagh Vic and Limini, with just over two lengths covering the four of them, is not worth a hill of beans!

Now heading to Cheltenham with just one run under your belt, or none, has never proved a barrier to

success.

Quevega won the Mares’ Hurdle six times, five of them without an outing that season. Penhill landed last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle, on his seasonal debut. Annie Power won the 2016 Champion Hurdle, having only made her seasonal debut when scoring at Punchestown a couple of weeks earlier.

However, the Gold Cup is an entirely different proposition, usually contested by battle-hardened warriors, leaving little scope for error.

The million-dollar question then is, has a horse ever won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, having its first outing of the season over fences? I certainly did not have the answer, so rang the very knowledgeable Ted Walsh.

Yes,” came the response, “Easter Hero did it in 1929, 90 years ago, but he ran four times over hurdles that season.

So, the overwhelming evidence then is clearly Presenting Percy faces, at best, an extremely difficult task.

When Native River won last year’s Gold Cup, he did so on the back of just one previous outing that season, but it was when winning over fences at Newbury in early February.

There are those who believe Kelly is a genius and if anyone can achieve this feat it is him, but the word genius is bandied about too loosely and those who think of him in such a league are basing it on flimsy evidence.

He has, admittedly, enjoyed some good times of late at Cheltenham, with Mall Dini in 2016 and Presenting Percy for the last two years.

Kelly also trained two winners of the Galway Hurdle, Natalie’s Fancy in 1992 and No Tag in 1995, both ridden by Jason Titley.

He is obviously a talented man at his craft, but when I think of genius, in a racing context, the likes of Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden and Willie Mullins are the names that readily come to mind.

Presenting Percy comes into this Gold Cup with just five races over fences under his belt, only one recent outing in a very moderate hurdle at Gowran and having never faced the type of tough and durable opponents waiting for him at Cheltenham.

If the Galway man can pull off the seemingly impossible then here’s one who will in future refer to him as “the genius Kelly”.

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