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Packing a punch

The buzz around the 13 Irish winners at this month's Cheltenham Festival has yet to die down, and rightly so.

We crossed the Irish Sea tentatively hoping for a successful week of equine raiding, but returned with memories of six winners on the Wednesday alone, a new champion hurdler and the four best two-mile chasers around.

Punchestown is on our doorstep, however, and this year, more than any other before, the Irish National Hunt Festival at the beginning of May has the credentials to be the best ever.

Tony McCoy, Paul Nicholls, Nina Carberry, Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and Nicky Henderson will all feature.

But most importantly we will have some of the best equine talent available.

Mullins will have a typically strong battalion for the week, headed by the superb Hurricane Fly.

Last year's Champion Hurdle winner at Punchestown, Hurricane Fly has had a virtually setback-free campaign this year and after winning the Cheltenham equivalent on his first attempt a fortnight ago, he will now be geared back to fly the flag on home soil.

Joining him in a bid for another Festival win will be his stable companion Quevega, who has now annihilated the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle field at Cheltenham for three years, but likes to show up the boys at Punchestown when winning the three-mile World Hurdle, which is again the target.

Depending on how he gets on with his tilt at Big Buck's next week, Carlito Brigante may take on the super mare, while Powerstation, who runs in a handicap tomorrow at Cork, is another expected to line up against her.

Also likely to be on the road up from Mullins' Closutton base are Kempes, Mourad, Thousand Stars, Golden Silver and Grade One-seeking Allure Of Illusion.

Unlike Hurricane Fly, Philip Fenton's Dunguib hasn't had the most ideal preparation this season, and after a somewhat disappointing run at Cheltenham he may now face Quevega in the World Hurdle if stepping up in trip.

Then, impossible to forget is our novice hurdlers who did us proud at Cheltenham, most notably the Mouse Morris-trained First Lieutenant, who is most likely to line up.

Morris said: "There's not a bother on him. I don't want to set anything in stone, but there's still a possibility he could go to Punchestown this season."

There, waiting for a rematch, will be Jessica Harrington's Oscars Well, who was an apparent unlucky loser to First Lieutenant in the Neptune Investments Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham.

A stumble after an almost perfect jump at the last in that race cost Oscars Well all momentum and he will be a horse many people will want to see again -- as will Mullins' So Young, who was fourth in the Neptune.

Cheltenham hasn't been the happiest of hunting grounds for Dermot Weld, but the first ever Moyglare Stud-owned runner over hurdles, Unaccompanied, did him proud there in the Triumph Hurdle when only meeting one too good.

Connections were slightly bullish of a possible reversal of that result if they were to meet again due to a lack of luck in running, and while it's a bit early to say if Paul Nicholls will send over Zarkandar, Weld's juvenile is likely to arrive at jumping's HQ following a visit to the Flat headquarters on Sunday for the listed Alleged Stakes. Talk about multitasking!

Already booked in for a stay is dual Gold Cup winner Kauto Star, who, despite not being a winner at this year's Cheltenham Festival, is still set to be a star attraction on the Wednesday of Punchestown.

Paul Nicholls has often sent over a number of high-profile runners and won the Punchestown Gold Cup twice previously with Neptune Collonges, and while Denman was fourth in the race last year, Kauto Star "could well be suited by Punchestown", according to Nicholls this week.

Hennessy winner Kempes may oppose him, as could last year's winner Planet Of Sound, who is one of many intended runners for Philip Hobbs.

Also a possible Punchestown Gold Cup runner is last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander after Nigel Twiston Davies silenced reports that he was finished for the season by stating: "He's back in work and there is a small chance he might go to Punchestown."

As exciting as the Gold Cup will be, the Champion Chase at Punchestown really will be interesting as the first four from the Cheltenham equivalent are all set to make the short journey to Kildare.

Of course, the two-miler was an Irish domination at the Cotswolds with Big Zeb, Captain Cee Bee and Golden Silver following home the winner, Sizing Europe.

Speaking to the Herald this morning, Sizing Europe's trainer admitted he is "a great fan of Punchestown," but most importantly that his stable star "came out of Cheltenham great and I'm delighted with him".

Henry de Bromhead added: "He seems in great form, we're delighted with him. I'd imagine he would go for the two-mile at Punchestown."

Big Zeb is set to be "freshened up before Punchestown", according to his trainer, Colm Murphy, while Eddie Harty said of Captain Cee Bee: "All being well, he'll go to Punchestown next. He was good there last year and hopefully he can show his best again."

De Bromhead also told the Herald that his novice chaser, Loosen My Load -- already a dual winner over fences at Punchestown -- may step up to three-miles at the Festival following his encouraging run in the Jewson Novices Chase, while Sizing Australia will bid to follow up his Cross Country Chase win with a repeat in one of the three Punchestown races over similar obstacles.

Paul Nolan's Noble Prince, who was victorious in the Jewson, may head to Punchestown "for the two-mile novice chase if the ground comes up soft or the three-mile novice if it's good ground", according to James Nolan, assistant trainer to his brother Paul, who spoke to the Herald this morning, while the "Powers Gold Cup is also under consideration at Fairyhouse".

Jessica Harrington's RSA Chase winner Bostons Angel will not be attending the festivities as he is off enjoying his well-deserved summer holidays after three Grade One wins this season.

However Jessies Dream, who ran him all the way to the shadows of the post at Cheltenham, will bid to give Gordon Elliott a second Grade One success.

One horse we didn't see at Cheltenham was last year's Champion Chase runner-up Forpadydeplasterer, who has been out of action since a poor run in the King George.

However, according to trainer Tom Cooper, he is set to make his eagerly anticipated return at Punchestown.

"He's great and won't run at Aintree but will go to Punchestown," said Cooper.

"He's over all his problems, thank God."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland-based Ian Ferguson is considering the champion Hunters Chase at Punchestown with his Cheltenham winner Zemsky, who was a very impressive winner under Derek O'Connor.

Punchestown is expecting a strong contingent of UK-based trainers to send over horses in early May. As well as Kauto Star, Nicholls could send Supreme Novices Hurdle winner Al Ferof, who is owned by massive fan of the racecourse John Hales.

Henderson is also likely to have a number of runners throughout the week.

Ainstree is seemingly favoured over last year's Champion Hurdle winner Binocular, who dramatically missed this year's renewal at Cheltenham.

However, if the ground is too quick in Liverpool next week, Punchestown looks a major possibility.

Henderson's Welsh Champion Hurdle winner Oscar Whisky finished third in Cheltenham and he's another that could end the season at Punchestown with another crack at Hurricane Fly, while some of his strong team of novices may appear.

Philip Hobbs enjoyed success at the meeting for the past couple of seasons and is keen to send his strongest ever team over.

Hobbs has earmarked Menorah for the Champion Hurdle as well as Cheltenham's Arkle winner Captain Chris, Champion Bumper winner Cheltenian and, of course, Planet Of Sound, who won the Gold Cup here last season.

Should the ground come up right, David Pipe's World Hurdle runner-up Grand Crus would be a fascinating inclusion in the Punchestown World Hurdle, and he is also expected to have a number of other runners, while trainer Tim Vaughan has indicated he could have at least six runners for the week.

Jonjo O'Neill's Cheltenham specialist and dual Ryanair winner Alberta's Run may miss Aintree next week in favour of Punchestown, while his narrow loser Get Me Out Of Here will try and avenge his defeat to Final Approach with compensation at the Kildare venue.

Emma Lavelle's Court In Motion may contest one of the novice hurdles after running well at Cheltenham, while Cue Card and Recession Proof are also still in the mix.

Champion Hurdle sixth Clerk's Choice is likely to be sent over by trainer Michael Banks and Alan King's runners could include Medermit, Blazing Bailey, Kumbershwar, Dhaafer and Jubail.

It all means we'll have hardly drawn our breath from Cheltenham, Aintree and Fairyhouse before Punchestown hits us with a bang like never before.

The Newmarket Guineas may be on before Ireland's National Hunt Festival this year, but with the likes of Hurricane Fly, Kauto Star, Quevega and Sizing Europe to name just half a handful, there's only one show to be at from May 3-7 -- the Punchestown Festival.