With the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals behind us, you’d think think that much of the questions for the National Hunt season have now been answered, but there is still one or two glaring bits of unfinished business left to tend to before we fully commit to the 2018 Summer season. The Punchestown Festival this week provides the perfect stage for the final few days of top class National Hunt action, including a rather absorbing battle for supremacy unfolding on the Emerald Isle which is set to reach an exciting climax this week.
The key focal point for the 2018 Punchestown Festival is of course the battle for Champion Irish trainer honours between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins. Accumulative prize-money is the order of the day and a year ago, Elliott was just under £400,000 ahead of Mullins entering the Punchestown Festival. This year, he has a lead of over £500,000, yet he remains just a shade of odds-on to win his first trainer title.
When you look at the firepower Willie Mullins has at his disposal over the next few days, it isn’t difficult to see why the old master remains very much in contention, despite Elliott being the favourite to hold on after a truly mesmerising campaign to date. An opening boost of £59,000 looks at the mercy of Mullins and GETABIRD in the 4.20pm on Tuesday however. This imposing gelding got his impressive novice season back on track with a superb 12 length success at Fairyhouse three weeks ago, after running a disappointing race when favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
A chaser in the making, Getabird does everything right and can prove his superiority over Mengli Khan & Co here.
The 5.30pm Champion Chase is a healthier £162,250 to the winner, as one of the feature races of the week and all the vibes coming from the Mullins yard suggest that Rich Ricci’s DOUVAN is firing on all cylinders and ready to put the Cheltenham fall behind him with a timely and long-awaited win for this huge talent. When he tipped over in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Douvan denied National Hunt fans perhaps one of the best finishes to the race we’ve seen in years. It wasn’t to be and Altior did what he had to do, but it was very much a case of what could’ve been for connections and backers of Douvan.
All the signs were there that he is right back to something like his potent best though, and if he is, anything around the Even money mark should probably be taken, or at least added to your multiple bets for the week. This National Hunt racing season could really do with a big win out of Douvan, it’s been too long. But it’s easy to forget he is still only an 8yo and hopefully he’ll get a clear rub of the green on Day 1. Barring mishap – he’ll win.
On Wednesday, the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novices’ Hurdle over three miles can go the way of Willie Mullins’ NEXT DESTINATION at 4.55pm. This 6yo is very classy and really filled the eye in the closing stages of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle behind Samcro, very much giving the impression that he was running in the wrong race at the Cheltenham Festival – this horse wants 3m+.
He looks “NAP” material on Day 2. The feature race of the day of course is the Punchestown Gold Cup at 5.30pm, where Noel Meade can throw his own little spanner in the prize money works if his ROAD TO RESPECT can build on a fine 4th in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month. The heavy ground at Cheltenham blunted his ability to quicken there, but conditions will be much more in his favour here and he must have a massive chance. Elliott & Mullins will be represented in the race, but the likely favourite Road To Respect will need to underperform to bring the likes of Bellshill, Killultagh Vic, Djakadam and Outlander into the picture.
On Thursday, Mullins looks set to take home the Lion’s share of prize-money once again, with the 5.30pm Champion Stayers Hurdle looking a near-on certainty to go his way, with £162,250 on offer for the 1st past the post. Including the Cheltenham Stayers’ winner and warm jolly Penhill, he trains the top 3 in the betting and 8 of the first 12 in the proposed early betting market for this 3m contest. The fly in the ointment though could well be a resurgent IDENTITY THIEF for Henry De Bromhead if he takes his chance, after bouncing right back to his best at Aintree last time out when stepped up to this trip.
The battle between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins should come to something of a head by Friday and the Irish trainer Championship could come down to the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, once again at 5.30pm for the feature contest. Melon produced a career best when 2nd in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and is a worthy market leader on the back of that.
But Gordon Elliott has an ace up his sleeve in the form of the brilliant novice SAMCRO, who looks set to take a dip into top Grade 1 hurdling company a few months early. Melon is a good horse, but the manner in which Samcro goes about his work suggests he is a very special animal indeed and the momentum of his progression is tough to ignore.
It would be fitting if – after all the hype and success of this young talent so far – the Gigginstown owned 6yo proved to be the icing on the cake, the cherry on top and indeed the deciding factor in Gordon Elliott proving himself to be the new King on the Irish Jumps trainers’ scene.
….Don’t expect Mullins to go down easily, though. Let the games commence.
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