THE CHAMPION Bumper has largely been the preserve of the Irish, having been won on 14 occasions out of 19 by the visitors, but the habitual prefestival confidence is somewhat lacking this year.
A six-in-a-row sequence ended with Cue Card's win in 2010 and the ex-irish Cheltenian saw off all challengers 12 months ago. Hopes of avoiding a third successive defeat haven't been helped by the impression that many Irish bumpers have looked less competitive than usual this season, and few performers have really taken the eye.
An exception comes from a slightly unexpected source - the Northern Ireland stable of Brian Hamilton, a former amateur rider whose only previous Cheltenham runner Chief Oscar finished down the field in the Foxhunter in 2009.
His Moscow Mannon, by Moscow Society out of a mare by the sprinter Mind Games, is arguably the pick of the Irish challenge, having won his last three races from four career starts, all under Declan Lavery, a 7lb claiming amateur who now works for Willie Mullins, having learned to ride in the Hamilton yard at Downpatrick.
Hamilton, 42, was one of the best amateur riders to come out of Northern Ireland in recent decades. With a background in pony racing he had a brief spell with the Dickinson stable in Yorkshire in his teenage years, before returning home as assistant to Jeremy Maxwell.
He rode around 60 winners on the track, and 163 in points between 1986 and 2005. He was champion point-to-point rider on the northern circuit in 2003 and 2004 and was champion senior rider (over 33) on three occasions before his career came to a premature end with a bad schooling accident that resulted in the loss of his spleen and serious chest injuries.
While still working for Maxwell, he had taken out a licence in 2001, operating on a small scale. He gained publicity early in his training career through Amstecos, who was a contender for one of the novice hurdles at Cheltenham in 2007 after impressive wins in two bumpers and in his first two runs over hurdles before he developed leg trouble.
It was an early example of the harsh realities of training life for Hamilton.
He says: 'In a big yard if one good horse goes wrong there are plenty more lining up behind to take his place. If I get a good one and something happens to him it's a big blow.'
In Moscow Mannon he looks to have a very good one, and his experience as a rider, and of working for Maxwell, makes him well qualified to judge the merits of the six-year-old.
'I learned a lot about preparing young horses from Jeremy,' Hamilton says. 'The really smart ones like Rhyme 'n' Reason, By The Way, and Lean Ar Aghaidh were before my time, but there were still some good young horses in the yard on the way to being sold."
Moscow Mannon made a competent debut when third at Down Royal last June. Hamilton says: 'He was only with me a short time when he ran at Down Royal, and it was a very good run in the circumstances.
'The winner Donatis Comet ended up winning three bumpers for Pat Martin and the second Trabajo had previously won easily at Listowel. My fellow was a good third, and it encouraged us to go to Galway with him.'
Having won by a neck at Galway from a Willie Mullins hotpot, Hamilton had planned to run Moscow Mannon at Down Royal's big meeting in November, but that had to be shelved when he had a minor setback, and it was not until a month later that he reappeared at Fairyhouse. With Lavery aboard again he won easily from Joxer, who had previously won at Punchestown and has since scored over hurdles.
Hamilton says: 'Declan had been telling us that he thought that he was as good as anything that Willie had at that stage, so we had started to have Cheltenham at the back of our minds.'
The Grade 2 bumper at Navan before Christmas was an option, but in the event, conditions were demanding in the race won by the highly regarded Don Cossack, and there is no sense of an opportunity missed.
Instead, Hamilton waited until Thyestes day at Gowran, where Moscow Mannon again beat a Mullins favourite. Hamilton did not immediately commit the horse to Cheltenham, briefly contemplating a switch to novice hurdling.
He says: 'We've done quite a bit of schooling with him. About ten days before the Gowran race Andrew Lynch jumped him over eight hurdles, and he did it well enough. We talked it over and decided to go for Cheltenham and leave hurdling until next season.'
The question of who would ride Moscow Mannon at the festival was a subject for discussion. Hamilton is aware that many observers will reckon that a professional should take over from Lavery, but he places great store on loyalty, a philosophy shared by the gelding's owner-breeder Jonathan Flanagan, who has turned down several offers for the horse.
The trainer says: 'I don't know if it's a case of the heart ruling the mind, but Declan is certainly a very good young rider, improving all the time with the experience he's getting, watching jockeys like Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend in the Mullins yard and riding alongside Patrick who is a top amateur.
'The owners are down-to-earth people who value loyalty, and Declan has my full support.'
Hamilton was encouraged to see Lavery guide the stable's Station Lane to a 33-1 success in a maiden hurdle at Down Royal at the beginning of the month and points out that he got the better of Davy Russell in a photo-finish on that occasion. In addition, he adds that Lavery had a ride around Cheltenham for Mullins earlier in the season, so he won't be seeing the track for the first time.
Still, the notion of contesting a championship race at Cheltenham would hardly have been on the agenda for trainer and rider when another Hamilton 33-1 chance Open Up Your Heart gave Lavery his first winner at Down Royal just 13 months ago.
Hamilton's biggest training success came when talented hunter chaser Chief Oscar won the Ulster National at Downpatrick two years ago. But celebration turned to agony in a heartbeat when the horse collapsed and died just after passing the winning post.
He says: 'It was very hard to take. I had told journalist Jimmy Walker it was my big ambition to win the race. I hope I've always had my feet on the ground, and I thought it was a realistic ambition for a trainer like myself. I was so thrilled to win that race, and it was an awful thing to happen.'
Two years on, the memory is still painful, and naturally it makes Hamilton cautious to express any ambition other than that Moscow Mannon returns safe and sound from Cheltenham. However, one senses that he feels he may have a really good horse on his hands. How good, it is hard to be sure, but certainly a strong contender to bring the Champion Bumper crown back to Ireland.