Stick with The Jam Man at Cheltenham Festival
ARMAGH City isn't known as a heartland for horse racing, but local trainer Ronan McNally has been making waves in the National Hunt game thanks to the exploits of his stable star The Jam Man.
Located on the Rock Road in a part of town more famous for Road Bowling, McNally has a small, but state-of-the-art training facility that is currently home to just six horses.
Next month, he will saddle his first runner at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival as The Jam Man takes his chance in the Stayers' Hurdle - the feature race on day three of the festival.
Of course, that means taking on the defending champion and racing superstar Paisley Park.
The Emma-Lavelle-trained gelding has racked up eight successive wins including the 2018 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle and the 2019 Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Even though he admits he has not allowed himself to think about beating Paisley Park and winning a Championship race at Cheltenham, McNally is adamant that The Jam Man deserves to take his chance.
“Realistically, I don't think we are going to improve 17 or 18 pounds to beat him (Paisley Park), said McNally.
“Everyone in racing always says don't be afraid of one horse. It is like doing the lottery, if you aren't in it, you can't win it.
“I haven't even dreamt of winning the race. I don't want to get carried away thinking we are going to go to Cheltenham and win. He is 66/1 at the end of the day.
“I want to enjoy it without putting pressure on myself or the horse.
“There's a good buzz around Armagh and people seem to be really embracing it.
“I think people like having a bit of interest and involvement in Cheltenham. On social media, he seems to have a bit of a cult following - it is crazy.”
The Jam Man was catapulted into the headlines last summer when McNally decided to send the horse to Southwell for a Novices' Handicap Chase and the horse landed something of a gamble having been 20/1 overnight before returning the 9/4 winner.
While the 39-year-old always stated his intention was to send the horse over to try and win the race, the stewards at Southwell quizzed him multiple times before and after racing, something which he felt was over the top.
“My horses were all sick last year and The Jam Man went chasing, but he wasn't in love with chasing,” said McNally.
“He jumps hurdles much better. He is small - he is less hand 16 hands.
“He ran disappointingly at Downpatrick, but the horses started to turn a corner and he started to do some serious pieces of work at home.
“We went to Southwell full of confidence and I was called into the stewards before the race and asked what I thought would happen. I told them I was over to try and win a race.
“Once he did win, they came and spoke to me in the winners enclosure and about an hour after the race and they asked about his ‘sudden improvement'.
“There was no sudden improvement, his form was just better.
“It spoiled that day a bit because we were called in and out of the stewards and I wouldn't be used to it. I was wondering what all the fuss was about.”
While McNally was being interviewed by the stewards, his son Kian ‘Tubs' McNally took over press duties and a clip of him being interviewed by former jockey Luke Harvey on Racing UK soon went viral.
“He (Kian) has never been shy,” added McNally.
“He always attracts television cameras at the racing. He now has been interviewed by Hayley Turner, Luke Harvey and Nick Luck. He is well used to it by now. He is a natural and he enjoys it.”
After Southwell, The Jam Man won a further three races before finishing fourth at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
He finalised his preparations for Cheltenham with a fine run at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown last month - finishing second to Treacysenniscorthy in a valuable three-mile handicap hurdle.
After the race, McNally said there was only one race on his mind and a revised rating of 150 by the English handicapper cemented his decision to go for the Stayers Hurdle rather than the seemingly easier target of the Pertemps Hurdle.
“We were delighted with him,” stated McNally.
“On the day, we got a lovely position and a lovely run through. At the fourth last, a horse fell and the jockey landed out in front of him.
“He probably used a bit of petrol getting back into position. Ultimately, giving the winner so much weight cost us.
He added: “I left Leopardstown think that you need a lot of luck in running in the big handicaps. A lot can go wrong.
“I rang Sean Flanagan (jockey) to see did see think I was mad to have a go at the Stayers'.
“Sean said to have a crack at it and he is keen to ride him in the race. Bar Paisley Park, it looks an open enough race.
“When the handicapper in England put him up to 150, that confirmed it. You belong in the Stayers off a rating of 150.
“I'm going to give him his chance. He is my horse, so there's no real pressure - it is my call.
“Going on the ratings, he would have to improve by seven pounds to be placed, but he seems to be improving with every race and he is worth his place in the race.”
Paisley Park's owner, Andrew Gemmell, has been blind from birth and the horse's victory provided one of the most memorable moments of last year's Cheltenham Festival.
McNally won't allow himself to dream of victory, but should The Jam Man get his head in front in the Stayers' Hurdle, it would be another fairytale story in the illustrious history of the famous festival and the racing public would be treated to some more brilliant interviews with ‘Tubs' McNally.