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Jockey Ruby Walsh, racing correspondent Niall Cronin, owner Rich Ricci, Herald Deputy Editor Alan Steenson, Sports Editor Pat Keane and trainer Willie Mullins on stage at the Punchestown
presentations. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Jockey Ruby Walsh, racing correspondent Niall Cronin, owner Rich Ricci, Herald Deputy Editor Alan Steenson, Sports Editor Pat Keane and trainer Willie Mullins on stage at the Punchestown presentations. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Jockey Ruby Walsh, racing correspondent Niall Cronin, owner Rich Ricci, Herald Deputy Editor Alan Steenson, Sports Editor Pat Keane and trainer Willie Mullins on stage at the Punchestown presentations. Photo: Doug O'Connor

THE sunshine and impressive racing form drew out record attendances on the first day of the Punchestown Festival.

Nearly 19,500 punters surged through the gates at the popular Kildare racecourse, the biggest crowd to attend the opening of the five-day extravaganza.

And Dublin's leading newspaper took centre stage in one of the day's Grade 1 races with the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle.

Jockey Ruby Walsh celebrated his return from injury as he romped home on the Rich Ricci-owned Faugheen to claim the €55,800 prize.

HONOUR

"Racing is an essential part of our daily coverage and it is an honour to continue to play a part in such an important festival," said Herald Deputy Editor Alan Steenson.

Winning trainer Willie Mullins scrubbed up well as he ditched his trademark coat and hat to collect the trophy from Mr Steenson alongside triumphant owner Ricci.

It must have been a quiet day in Montrose yesterday as a string of RTE stars including radio host Sean O'Rourke, GAA man Marty Morrissey and news reader Aengus MacGrianna took some time out from work to enjoy a few drinks and a bit of gambling on a sunny Tuesday.

Temperatures soared and some fashionable ladies braved bare legs in the late April sunshine, with bright colours the order of the day.

RTE golden girl Kathryn Thomas was a no-show at the festival opener, pulling out at the last minute due to a late work commitment, but there was plenty of glamour in the form of former model Gillian Quinn and Poppy Desmond, the daughter of financier Dermot.

Radio host O'Rourke told the Herald that he was making the most of his mid-morning programme, which allows him to get out of work two hours earlier than his previous slot on the 1pm news.

Pat Kenny's radio replacement feels he has now stamped his authority on the high-rating show after a tense transition period.

"It was always enjoyable but at the start there was a certain amount of tension attached to it, because of the unknown and getting used to people, all of the public attention," he said.

"I am getting to do a broad range of material and my confidence is growing with that, stuff I would never have done before."

Olympian and showjumper Cian O'Connor enjoyed a day off his horse as he turned out at his local racecourse with wife Ruth (inset below).

The couple are smitten with their eight-month-old son Ben, and doting dad Cian said: "Nobody can prepare you for it and the sleepless nights, but he is doing great and it is a change for the better.

"I have a big competition in France this Friday so we were lucky that myself and Ruth could leave our baby with her mum for a few hours so she can enjoy a break."

The brother of gorgeous model Pippa O'Connor has fond memories of the Punchestown festival as a youngster.

"I grew up in Naas and all the schools were closed and I remember the town had a big festival so it is still as big as ever for us," he said.

Fresh from his popular appearance at last Friday's VIP Awards, GAA broadcaster Marty Morrissey had a lucky day after throwing his money behind winning jockey Ruby.

More than 100,000 punters are expected to attend the five-day festival, with Ladies Day on Friday always a massive attraction.

PUNCHESTOWN SPECIAL: SEE PAGES 64-72


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