Dessie Hughes' festival hopefuls pack a powerful punch
Co Kildare trainer Dessie Hughes chats to Siobhán English about his entries for the Punchestown Festival which starts today
British trainers may have come out on top with the most wins at Cheltenham last month, but their Irish rivals will be making sure that most of the silverware from this week's Punchestown National Hunt Festival stays at home.
One of those trainers who will be hoping that he can make amends for a lean week at the track in 2013 is Curragh-based Dessie Hughes.
He heads across the county armed with some dozen horses – several of them novices, but all capable of bringing home the goods over the five days of action.
Everyone remembers the good days when the great Hardy Eustace landed the Emo Oil Champion Hurdle in 2004 during an era when he also won two back-to-back Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham.
'Hardy' is now enjoying his retirement from the track at Hughes' Osborne Lodge, and the 17-year-old is looking fit and well.
Not surprisingly, he is still ridden out most days and is a likely contender again for the Racehorse to Riding Horse class at the Dublin Horse Show in August.
At home, he is in excellent company with several of the Punchestown hopefuls, including Bright New Dawn, Lieutenant Colonel, Guitar Pete, Some Tikket and Lyreen Legend, who has the form to justify his entry in the Bibby Financial Services Gold Cup on Wednesday.
Having finished sixth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Bobs Worth, the seven-year-old will possibly take his chances here against the British raider once again, but the Irish are also well represented with the likes of On His Own and Aintree winner Boston Bob.
"He ran a hell of a race in the Gold Cup in Cheltenham but hit the second last which knocked the wind out of him," Hughes said of Lyreen Legend.
"Other than that we thought he would have been placed. We think the 3m 1f might suit him better here."
Hughes is also optimistic about Lieutenant Colonel in Friday's Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle.
"We didn't think that when he ran in Fairyhouse the last day that he'd run again so soon, but he's done so well since the race we feel he is entitled to run here.
"He won quite easily in Fairyhouse and he will be taking on the big boys this time, but we think he is up to it."
Some Tikket also won well at Fairyhouse in early April and he will be aimed at the AON Novice Handicap Steeplechase on Friday.
"He ran very well at Fairyhouse and appreciates better ground so we think he could run well here. This is a 2m 5f handicap and he will have plenty of weight in it, but he's a fine horse," Hughes said.
One stable star who is sadly missed coming up to the Festival is Our Conor, who was tragically killed at Cheltenham in March.
Winner of the 2013 JCB Triumph Hurdle, the five-year-old was primed for further glory before suffering a fatal fall in the Stan James Champion Hurdle under Danny Mullins.
"It was devastating and we could not believe it happened," Hughes said of the horse who had immense potential.
Four-year-old Guitar Pete may now well take up the mantle as the yard's 'newcomer to watch'. Hughes thinks a lot of this one, who won well at Aintree earlier this month and is entered for the Grade 1 AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle on Saturday.
"He's been a great soldier and has done everything we ask of him," the trainer said. "He was very good in Liverpool and Paul Carberry was very good on him, so we hope that Paul can maybe ride him again for us."
With five wins over hurdles to his credit, he may well make that six by the end of the week.
With some 60 horses in training, Hughes is not short of talent for the 2014 Festival and several horses will also be having their first runs at the track.
"We have a few for the Fillies race on Friday, including Who Told Jan, and Rodger Roo, and also Daydream Island for the Goffs Land Rover Bumper.
"We bought him in the Land Rover Sale last June and he has progressed well."
Side Saddle, aptly named by Hughes' daughter Sandra, is another possibility for the ITBA Fillies Scheme Premier Bumper on Friday.
"It's always lovely to have runners at Punchestown but you really need Grade 1 and Grade 2 horses for it," Hughes said as he prepares to take on some of Ireland's most valuable races.
"It really is our Cheltenham, and it's just as good as having runners there," he added.