Judgment day for Punchestowns
Nobody had the foggiest idea what to make of his comeback -- quite literally.
By the time he emerged from the mist at Newbury last month, Punchestowns was already deep in a duel to the line with Pride Of Dulcote. At Cheltenham today, however, he gets the chance to match the recent unequivocal revival of his stablemate Long Run as a Gold Cup contender. Should he do so, he will only stress the way the wind is already blowing.
A crop of younger chasers is emerging to challenge the old guard. An early skirmish back in November produced Diamond Harry; and then Pandorama threw down the gauntlet for Ireland. But the most significant breakthrough came in Long Run's defeat of Kauto Star at Kempton a fortnight ago.
Connections of the beaten champion insist he is not yet over the hill. And in fairness to Kauto Star, which bled from the nose, he has since been found to be suffering from "a low-grade infection" -- a discovery perfectly consistent with a mild dip from the usual strike-rate of champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
Nicholls can be readily indulged a somewhat defensive approach to those writing off a horse he will always cherish more than any other. But the same exoneration cannot be extended to those contributing to the unworthily peevish tone infecting the debate about Kauto Star's Gold Cup prospects.
If Kauto Star were somehow to pull it out of the fire, it would be one of the great moments in steeplechasing history. With that in mind, it's a little unnerving to see trenches already being dug for a tense stand-off between the horse's detractors and those keeping the faith. Whatever happens, it would belittle a gripping endeavour for anyone to talk in terms of Nicholls trying to "prove the critics wrong".
That's not what this is about. It's an epic tale of an ageing king which has suffered a chastening reverse at the hands of a young pretender and is now trying to regroup for what may or may not prove his last stand.
Some, admittedly, wish he would abdicate now. They dread the potential consequences of a more bruising defeat. Others, however, still envisage perhaps his greatest glory yet.
It is understandable for Nicholls to feel indignant over what he considers the impertinence of outsiders, whose evidence is confined to the horse's public appearances. And it would be a dreadful shame should such an open individual feel hurt by some of the things he hears or reads in response.
In turn, however, Nicholls has to accept that it all stimulates public interest and that it is possible for people to reach different conclusions. For instance, you would be within your rights to dismiss as far-fetched the reproof that Kauto Star is being "judged" on one disappointing run. Since his 2009 King George romp, he has jumped horribly in the Gold Cup, looking lucky to walk away; had a fairly undignified scrap with a doubtful stayer at Down Royal; and now this Kempton run.
Regardless, this is just part of a much broader dynamic, one that exposes Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander -- which have between them maintained a vintage standard over four Gold Cups -- on the burning deck as the likes of Long Run and Diamond Harry enter the picture.
Whether Punchestowns can now join them is one of the key questions today. Nicholls himself could soon be contributing to the next wave, with Pride Of Dulcote set to exploit Pandorama's absence from tomorrow week's Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown. He'll be curious to see how Punchestowns fares against three of his more seasoned inmates in the Argento.
Punchestowns certainly remains entitled to further progress, after just four starts over fences. He had sound excuses for disappointing in the RSA Chase and any dismay over his narrow failure to see off Pride Of Dulcote is easily qualified. Quite apart from the likelihood that he needed the run, he may have just met a smart rival, and Tatenen -- fully 40 lengths in their wake at Newbury -- bolted up in a valuable handicap at Ascot last weekend.
Tidal Bay is the most talented of his senior rivals but only belatedly consented to close the gap when Imperial Commander made his only appearance of the season so far, at Haydock. Tidal Bay receives 5lbs from Punchestowns and has an excellent record here -- beating Time For Rupert over hurdles on this card last year -- but will be dependent on the others to set up his finish up the hill.
In the absence of Time For Rupert, which has an infection and goes straight to the RSA Chase, the fact is that this field depends on Punchestowns for its untapped potential. Victory for the young horse, then, will perhaps represent another toll of a bell that grows ever louder. (© Independent News Service)