The sound of hardened hooves and on softened turf, the thrills and spills of the banks races, Cheltenham heroes and Cheltenham zeros, old foes and new adversaries, young and old combined in an electric atmosphere, a Festival steeped in Irish National Hunt history, man and beast become one, the Punchestown Festival has finally arrived.
On the first of five days of top class racing we have superstars like Sizing Europe, Sir Des Champs and Trifolium on show. However, they are all there to be shot at and I’m sure they won’t have it all their own way.
The first of a seven race card kicks off at 3.40 with the KHC Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase (Ladies Cup) a race steeped in Irish National Hunt history. Enda Bolger has had somewhat of a stranglehold on the race in recent years and he is three-handed again this year as he bids to retain his crown as the ‘Banks King’. Zest For Life and No Notions look to be the best of his two according to jockey bookings but both will find it tough to beat Willie Mullins’ gelding Boxer Georg. Mullins’ recruit has some very good Hunter Chase form at the top level but is taking on the banks course for the first time. If taking to it he should take all the beating but if he disappoints then I’m sure JT McNamara and Nina Carberry will be there to pick up all the pieces.
Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) has been won by horses such as Back In Front, Brave Inca and the mighty Hurricane Fly and while I’m sure we don’t have a horse of their calibre in this year’s race I’m sure it will still be a very competitive spectacle. Trifolium is the short priced favourite after his fine effort in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and although he is the most likely winner I wouldn’t be getting stuck into him at his price. Alderwood won well at Cheltenham and followed up with a gutsy win at Fairyhouse but I’ve a slight worry that this may be one run too many for him. If he proves me wrong then he is certainly a very tough horse but I just feel he may be a bit over the top. The horse that interests me is Willie Mullins’ Midnight Game. He is the second string of the Gigginstown pair but he is no doubt a useful sort and may just handle to rain-softened conditions better than anyone else. At around 10 or 12/1 he would be my pick in the race.
The Boylesports.com Handicap Hurdle is perhaps the most competitive event on the card and it is hard to narrow the field down as most horses are weighted to have a chance. Snap Tie is an interesting runner who I backed at Cheltenham before he was withdrawn. The three year absence is an obvious concern and although he has never encountered ground like this I’m hopeful that he’ll handle it. He is by Pistolet Bleu who has a 23% strike rate with his runners on soft-to-heavy ground in Ireland and a 17% strike rate with his Irish runners on heavy ground. He was kept in training for a reason and I think he may have a big performance left in him. Savello has been disappointing since joining Tony Martin but he does have enormous ability and if you ignore his last two runs he has to have a chance. Right down towards the bottom of the handicap is the mare Leah Claire. Ben Dalton takes a valuable 7lbs off which means Leah Claire only carries 9st-12lb. She has winning form on heavy ground and is her recent fall hasn’t dented her confidence she is sure to go very close.
The feature race on the card is the Boylesports.com Champion Chase (Grade 1) and it revolves around Sizing Europe. Defeated in an eventful Queen Mother Champion Chase by Finians Rainbow, Henry de Bromhead’s charge is out to make amends in this evening’s race. Last year’s winner Big Zeb re-opposes and the application of first time cheek-pieces may sharpen him up a touch. However, the heavy ground is against him and he certainly isn’t the horse of old. Sizing Europe should take all the beating in this race and barring mishaps I can’t see him getting beat.
Sir Des Champs was electric at Cheltenham and he faces four rivals in the Growise Champion Novice Chase (Grade 1) where he should make it five from five over fences and extend his unbeaten record to eight. Mossey Joe makes his reappearance after almost a year off the track and fitness may play a big part in his chances. Frisco Depot has winning form on the ground and wasn’t far behind Flemenstar when they last met so he looks the obvious challenger to Sir Des Champs, if there is such a thing.
The two ‘bumpers’ are impossible to weigh up and the market will provide the best clues as to who is the most likely winner. The first of the two bumpers at 6.05 is the Goffs Land Rover Bumper and First To Boogie has been well supported this morning following his incompletion in a point-to-point a month ago. The concluding bumper is a competitive event but it can go to the Jessica Harrington trained The Big Easy who was only two-lengths behind stable-mate Jezki on his debut. Heavy ground is a worry but being by Hurricane Run who has a 20% strike rate with his runners on heavy ground in Ireland, I’m hopeful it won’t be a problem