Punchestown's set to open soft

Niall Cronin

TOP-CLASS racing, fashion and one hell of a party all come together for the season-ending Punchestown Festival, which gets underway tomorrow.

Being a Naas native, it's the one week of the year that is a continuous talking point and at long last the hectic week that is the Punchestown Races is here.

It is something that those of us born and bred in Kildare's county town are very proud of.

Now into its third year of mid-afternoon starts, the Punchestown Festival continues to thrive, bringing a massive €60m boost to the economy with almost 100,000 filing through the turnstiles.

From all corners of the country, racegoers make the pilgrimage to the home of Irish jumps racing and it was back here in 1823 that the first recorded race meeting took place at Punchestown.

Things were much different then, and over recent years the meeting has become a five-day fixture, with the fifth day now becoming almost as popular as Ladies' Day on the Friday.

Punchestown will host 11 Grade One races over the next five days, which is more than any other racing festival in Europe, as the likes of Sizing Europe, Sir Des Champs, Voler La Vedette, Quevega and Hurricane Fly are star attractions.

A number of the horses who ran at the Cheltenham Festival will reappear at Punchestown and with their strong form a lot of them will end up being short-priced favourites, but with the ground officially described as soft ahead of the first day, it could be a dangerous week for punters.

Three years ago was the last time the ground was soft for the opening day -- on that occasion Hurricane Fly won the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle -- but other than that, the ground has been good over the last seven years.

It'll make it more interesting for those who have been to Cheltenham as there is simply no law to how they will bounce back from what is a tough place to go, but after a hard race there, and then contesting soft ground this week, there will surely be some of the so-called 'hotpots' turned over.

Between the 11 Grade Ones, the three Cross Country races and a host of intriguing bumpers, there will be plenty to report over the next five days and, regardless of the weather, one thing we are guaranteed is excitement and quality.