Treats galore in store at Festival
Clash of Mullins' stablemates Vautour and Un De Sceaux on the cards
A year ago, Vautour was a surprise absentee from the final declarations for the Herald Champion Novices' Hurdle on the Punchestown Festival opening day.
Willie Mullins reported that the stunning Supreme Novices' Hurdle victor had failed a late fitness test, prompting the omnipotent champion trainer to throw a curveball. He dropped Faugheen to two miles to win the Grade One in Vautour's absence and set in motion a grand plan that resulted in Champion Hurdle glory last month.
Vautour turned out later in the week to advertise his versatility with a tenacious triumph over further. It was disappointing in one sense to see history repeat itself yesterday morning, with Vautour not among the declarations for tomorrow's Boylesports Champion Chase.
Mullins had stressed on Saturday that there would be no late change of plans for his trio of star novice chasers in particular, only to report yesterday that all wasn't quite well with Vautour. "I wasn't happy with him this morning," he said. "He might still run later in the week but we will have to see how he goes."
A week is a long time in politics, but 24 hours is a long time in racing. The upside to Vautour's absence from tomorrow's depleted €200,000 event is that it raises the possibility of a joust between him and his relentless stablemate Un De Sceaux over two miles on Thursday.
It remains to be seen whether Mullins has any appetite to allow two of the most exciting novices around do battle. That they are in different ownership might help, and it would be a clash of irresistible proportions if it were to transpire.
It would also give Ruby Walsh a choice to make. He isn't in the habit of eschewing too many of Rich Ricci's elite delegation, so the smart money might be on his siding with Vautour in such an eventuality. Could the ante-post Gold Cup favourite conquer his Champion Chase equivalent over two miles? Finding out would be some treat.
Given Vautour's defection, it was mildly surprising that Mullins didn't rearrange his plans in a similar fashion to last year by switching Un De Sceaux to tomorrow's Grade One. Then again, he is less straightforward, and the chance of slightly slower ground by Thursday might also have influenced Mullins' thinking.
Tomorrow's race still promises plenty, albeit it lacks Vautour's star appeal. Mullins and Walsh rely on the unreliable Champagne Fever. Last year's redoubtable hero Sizing Europe is again among the 10 set to line out, as are Mallowney, Flemenstar and Hidden Cyclone.
In the Growise Novices' Chase, Mullins' Don Poli, which vies for Gold Cup favouritism with Vautour, is the marquee name among five, while this year's Supreme winner Douvan represents the Closutton outfit in the Herald's six-runner affair. Both look slightly bombproof.
Davy Russell is pencilled in to return at Punchestown tomorrow after spending five weeks on the sidelines with a broken elbow.
Barry Geraghty, out with a fractured shin for the same duration, is not booked to ride in the card's three Grade Ones, but Russell is declared for Tim Doyle's Mallowney in the Champion Chase. Mallowney is 8/1 to atone for his odds-on defeat to the re-opposing Twinlight at Fairyhouse last month, when he was on a hat-trick.
At Cork in December, Mallowney just failed to give the stricken Robbie McNamara his first winner as professional when nabbed on the line by the Danny Mullins-ridden Felix Yonger.
Mullins is back on the victor for his uncle Willie tomorrow for the first time since then, having just returned from a busman's holiday in America. At Atlanta last weekend, he departed with a treble and two seconds, before bagging another two wins at Mineral Springs in North Carolina on Saturday. Sean McDermott rode a winner on the same card.
Paul Townend - on Twinlight in the two-mile feature - rides Noel Meade's RSA third Wounded Warrior in the novices' three-miler rather than continue his association with his Rebecca Curtis-trained Cheltenham winner Irish Cavalier.
A faller at Aintree, Irish Cavalier is to be ridden by Noel Fehily, who guided Henry De Bromhead's Special Tiara to an emphatic success in the Celebration Chase at Sandown on Saturday.
When AP McCoy took on the habitual front-runner aboard Mr Mole early on, Fehily didn't disrupt his mount's rhythm. The bold-jumping Special Tiara had resumed a slight lead at the Railway fences, and from there he proceeded to run out a decisive six-length winner, with Sprinter Sacre turning in an improved shift in second.
It was a first Grade One for Special Tiara since his Maghull Chase win at Aintree in 2013, while the 3/1 favourite's success was a third of the season for his excellent Co Waterford handler, who also plundered the latest Maghull courtesy of Sizing Granite's superlative show a fortnight earlier.
The Bet365 Chase went to Paul Nicholls' Just A Par for Sean Bowen, the champion conditional swooping late and fast to thwart Dermot McLaughlin's Vics Canvas, which fared best of the raiders for Ruby Walsh.
Jonathan Burke, who rides the Sizing horses for Alan and Ann Potts, will be crowned champion conditional here on Saturday. He found himself stranded at the start of the valuable handicap on the Potts-owned Grand Jesture, after the starter gave De Bromhead's reluctant favourite very little chance to be coerced into action.
Tweet of the weekend
Finny Maguire (@FinnyMaguire1)
First ride and winner over jumps, got some spin off Seventh Sign #Aeroplane
Rising star Finny Maguire has a day to remember at his local Dromahane track in north Cork where he took the Open aboard his father Adrian's prolific point-to-pointer.
100k euros that JP McManus donated to the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund after Saturday's charity race at Limerick. The local hero, who was at Sandown to share in AP McCoy's swansong, will have seen his colours carried to victory in the race on Charles O'Brien's Hurricane Sky, which was ridden by 60-year-old Bryan Murphy, the owner of Adare's Dunraven Arms Hotel.
The Injured Jockeys' mobile unit will be at Punchestown all week. Given the recent serious injuries suffered by Robbie McNamara and Davy Condon, it would be nice to think that everyone who walks through the gates will be minded to pay it a visit.