Thursday 19 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Heavyweight finale between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will pack some Punch'

Jockey Jack Kennedy and trainer Gordon Elliott with Potters Point in the winner’s enclosure at Fairyhouse. Photo: Sportsfile
Jockey Jack Kennedy and trainer Gordon Elliott with Potters Point in the winner’s enclosure at Fairyhouse. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Here's a number for you. 840,000. Here's another. 191,375. One more. 382,155. The first number is the amount in euro won by Willie Mullins at last year's Punchestown Festival. The second is the amount won by Gordon Elliott. And the third is the amount of money which, at the time of writing, divides Elliott from Mullins in the battle for the Irish trainers' championship which will be decided at the festival later this week.

You don't need to be a mathematical genius to divine that (a) there is an awful lot of money to be raced for at Punchestown and (b) it's still possible for Mullins to overhaul Elliott despite having trailed the younger trainer all season. The stage is set for a thrilling dénouement to one of the most fascinating battles in Irish sport, one rendered all the more fascinating by the fact that nobody at all expected such a contest when the season started.

Even when Michael O'Leary radically restructured the battleground by removing his Gigginstown Stud horses from the Mullins stable and giving the bulk of them to Elliott, conventional wisdom still held that Elliott's position on the top of the heap was a temporary thing. After all, the Meath man was going up against a behemoth. Mullins hadn't just won every title since the 2007-2008 season, he had pulverised the opposition. Last year he had almost €2m to spare over Elliott, the year before that the gap was almost €3m.

Yet here we are and Gordon Elliott remains out in front. The feeling is that he'll stay there. He may have been dwarfed at Punchestown in 2016 but Elliott 2017 is a very different beast. After Cheltenham he was 1/6 to win the trainers' title. Just before Fairyhouse that had lengthened to 2/5 after a Mullins surge. Now he's 1/5 and Mullins is 10/3. The feeling was that Mullins needed a big showing at Fairyhouse over Easter. With the Irish Grand National offering the biggest prize in Irish National Hunt racing, a cool €270,000, a Mullins victory there could have almost wiped out the deficit in one swoop. That did not transpire and the gap remained pretty much as it had been as Bless The Wings finished runner-up and earned €100,000 for Elliott.

Gordon Elliott is a few lengths clear coming to the final flight. Yet the run-in at Punchestown is a long one with five days of top-class racing to be negotiated. Mullins will need to produce something really extraordinary. But he has done that before. Think of the day three tour de force at Cheltenham which produced four winners after a disastrous first two days. Think of the 22 winners reeled off in four days of post-Christmas racing. Think of how good Punchestown has been to Willie Mullins in the past. And then consider that first prize in the feature race on each of the first four days is a quarter of a million. There may yet be a twist in the tale.

What an extraordinary tale it has been. There has been the sense all season of two heavyweights going punch for punch in the middle of the ring, of Elliott and Mullins pushing each other to greater heights. At Cheltenham, they each saddled six winners, one short of Mullins' all-time record. The result was the greatest ever Irish Cheltenham with the home challenge mercilessly swatted aside as the raiding party won an unprecedented and thoroughly unexpected 19 races. If you measure the health of Irish jump racing by performances at Cheltenham then this has been the greatest ever season in the history of the sport here.

It's certainly been a very great one indeed, not least because the big two have not had things entirely their own way. Jessica Harrington's Cheltenham Gold Cup and Irish National double mean that when the reviews of the year come round she'll play just as prominent a part as the pair at the top. Henry de Bromhead has already had more winners than any third-placed trainer in championship history. A resurgent Noel Meade will be the most successful fourth-placed trainer ever and has enjoyed his most lucrative season since 2009. If the rising tide of competition has not lifted all boats, it's certainly boosted the better ones.

There is much for Irish racing to celebrate at the end of this campaign and where better to do this than at Punchestown? The most impressive thing about the festival is that it hasn't just gone from strength to strength in the past decade, but that the improvement seems to be ongoing. In the past four years alone prize money has increased by a whopping 33 per cent. The dreams of it becoming an Irish Cheltenham which once seemed so far-fetched have been realised. And, given the current dominance of Irish runners at the English festival, it's not pushing it that much to suggest that Punchestown can rival its Cotswolds cousin for pre-eminence.

Take away the mystique and tradition attached to Cheltenham and there's little between them. Cheltenham has 14 Group One races, Punchestown has a dozen and this year has a couple of very significant big hitters who missed the March festival in 2016 Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power and 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree. Their presence adds an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings.

It would expecting an awful lot of Coneygree to pose a real challenge to the current Cheltenham blue riband champion Sizing John in Wednesday's Punchestown Gold Cup. Mark Bradstock's horse has run only twice since his Cheltenham triumph and on his last outing in November was 15 lengths behind Cue Card which wasn't good enough for Sizing John this year. The role of challenger will probably devolve to eternal Cheltenham bridesmaid Djakadam but there will be a massive amount of interest in how Coneygree goes given the huge potential of a horse good enough to win the Gold Cup while still a novice.

The hurdling season seemed for a long time to centre around the wait for Faugheen and Annie Power which in the end made Godot seem punctual and reliable by comparison. Yet such is Annie Power's talent that Willie Mullins' horse should go off as favourite in Friday's Champion Hurdle, and she's still scheduled to run despite the news yesterday that she is in foal to Camelot. Her main rivals would include stablemate Arctic Fire, coming off a win in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham and De Bromhead's Champion Hurdle third-placer Petit Mouchoir with the possibility of Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours being there as well.

Perhaps the most thrilling display at Cheltenham was Un De Sceaux's gun-to-tape victory in the Ryanair Chase for Mullins. This extravagantly talented performer drops back to two miles for the Champion Chase on Tuesday where he'll meet the first two in the Cheltenham equivalent, Special Tiara and Fox Norton.

Thursday sees a fantastic Cheltenham rematch. Back in March, Unowhatimeanharry went in to the Stayers Hurdle as the unbeatable English Festival banker only to have his colours lowered by Mullins' Nichols Canyon as he finished third. Harry Fry brings him across to try and gain revenge in the Champion Stayers Hurdle while Lil Rockerfeller, which split the pair of them last month, will also be in the mix, as will last year's winner, the English-trained One Track Mind, which missed Cheltenham.

There will also be the opportunity, or perhaps not, of seeing Irish racing's most unpredictable horse in action. Having refused to start on three previous occasions Gordon Elliott's Labaik was written off before the Supreme Novices Hurdle which he then won convincingly at odds of 25/1. This most quixotic of competitors should feature in Tuesday's Champion Novices Hurdle though Elliott has talked about moving him up to take on the older horses in the Champion Hurdle proper.

Making amends will be on the mind of Gordon Elliott when Death Duty, who looked the outstanding Irish novice hurdler of the season before flopping at Cheltenham in the Albert Bartlett, reappears in Friday's Tattersalls Novice Hurdle. Two horses which did the opposite at Cheltenham, the Mullins-trained Albert Bartlett winner Penhill and Presenting Percy, whose Pertemps Hurdle win for small Galway trainer Pat Kelly was one of the feel-good stories of that Festival should go head to head in the Daily Mirror Novices Hurdle on Wednesday.

Then there's Apple's Jade whose victory for Elliott over two of Mullins' star performers in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham was perhaps the Meath man's signal victory on the way to winning the trainers' title there. She should go in the Punchestown equivalent on Saturday, the final day of the festival. After all the twists and turns of the season, will the contest still be wide open by then? It could very well be. Why not an extraordinary finish to an extraordinary season?

You don't want to miss this one. See you there.

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