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A knock-out Punch'

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Quevega, with Ruby Walsh up, on the way to winning the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE...

Quevega, with Ruby Walsh up, on the way to winning the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE...

Quevega, with Ruby Walsh up, on the way to winning the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE...

This is the year of 'The Gathering' and it is fitting, therefore, that in such a year the Irish National Hunt Festival looks set to be the most memorable of all time.

Gathering at Punchestown Racecourse next week will be some of the best jump horses that Ireland and Britain have to offer as a tremendous jumps season draws to a climax.

After yesterday's final forfeit stage for the opening three days of the Punchestown Festival, the big names are all still on course to line up and it was Peter Casey's Flemenstar who was the only major absentee.

Limerick trainer, Charles Byrnes, set the tone of what will be an enthralling week when he said he was "looking forward to taking on Quevega" with his Cheltenham and Aintree winner Solwhit.

The clash of five-times Cheltenham Festival winner Quevega and the Byrnes-trained Solwhit is one of the most appetising of the season, never mind next week and those two feature among 13 still in contention for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle on Thursday.

"As long as Solwhit is 100 per cent, he will run and it looks like it is going to be a really good race. I will leave a definite decision until the weekend because he only ran at Aintree two weeks ago," Byrnes said.

The trainer admitted: "He didn't come out of the race at Aintree as well as he did at Cheltenham, which surprised me. The initial intention was not to run at Aintree and wait for Punchestown, but he came out of Cheltenham so well, we decided to go.

"He had such an easy race in Aintree, we thought he would come out of it bubbling, but he's a bit flat and we will wait for him to come alive. I am pretty hopeful that he will be okay by the weekend."

Looking ahead to the prospect of meeting Quevega next week, Byrnes suggested that his stable star would have to improve on his latest win.

"Although he won easily at Aintree, I don't think it was a better performance than at Cheltenham.

"The fourth-place horse at Aintree was only rated 138 and there was nothing like Quevega in the race."

Also featuring in the three-mile contest is Willie Mullins' Thousand Stars, who was third at Aintree and the British trio of Reve De Sivola, Holywell and Captain Sunshine.

Mullins will be looking to equal or better his total of 12 winners throughout the week, which would cap off a most memorable season for the trainer.

One of his leading hopes for the week, Sir Des Champs, remains on course for the Tote.com Punchestown Gold Cup next Wednesday. Mullins' Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up is joined by other Gigginstown-owned horses First Lieutenant and Quito De La Roque and they are all likely to take on Nicky Henderson's raider Long Run, the former Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, who was third in this year's renewal.

All eyes will be on Nicky Henderson over the next 24 hours as he is likely to announce whether or not he'll be sending over freak two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre, who followed up his Cheltenham Champion Chase win by landing the Aintree bowl over 2m4f earlier in the month.

Sprinter Sacre is due to head the field in Tuesday's Boylesports.com Champion Chase, which attracted eight entries at the five-day forfeit stage and still there is Sprinter Sacre's stable companion Finian's Rainbow as well as leading Irish chaser Sizing Europe, while Cue Card still holds an entry for Colin Tizzard.

Just 19 stood their ground for Wednesday's Betdaq Exchange Champion Bumper and Cheltenham victor Briar Hill is one of six Willie Mullins-trained horses still in the race.

In what could be one of the most competitive races of the week, The Mighty Milan is another very interesting runner in that race for Cork's TJ Nagle.

The ground at Punchestown at the moment is described as soft, soft to heavy in places.


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