All to play for in glittering finale
If you could imagine going to a football match this week where the entire Premier League team of the season would be on show, plus Ronaldo and Messi, plus whoever else your personal preferences would see placed in that company, well that gives you some idea of the range of equine talent that will take to the track from Tuesday to Saturday for the Punchestown Festival.
And this will be no friendly kick-about to further line the pockets of a retiring team-mate either; no end-of-season meaningless struggle between two mid-table mediocre entities with nothing much to play for. This is a full-blooded climax to what has been a season of extraordinary achievement for Irish racing.
At the centre, of course, is the battle for training supremacy between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott but the ordnance they have at their disposal to fight that battle, both men would readily agree, are the real stars of the show.
Just ponder this in-no-particular-order list: Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Samcro, Laurina, Min, Melon, Great Field, Farclas, Footpad, Penhill, Apple's Jade, Faugheen and on, and on and on. . .
In jovial mood at the Festival launch, Mullins joked that, "anything that can raise a gallop will be there," while Elliott, in the same spirit, countered that from his string, "anything that can breathe will be there".
The two trainers will be out to capture as many as possible of the 12 Grade Ones that pepper the 38-race programme and with more than €3m in prize money up for grabs, it really is all to play for.
Exactly who will run where, however, remains a mystery which will only be resolved by a combination of ground conditions, other entries and, specifically in the case of Elliott's star Samcro, how much the trainer needs to win his first title.
If connections decide to run Samcro in Friday's two-and-a-half-mile novice hurdle, he could come up against Mullins' Laurina, which also has an option in the mares' hurdle. There are a lot of ifs and buts before we will know for certain if the mouthwatering clash will materialise. If it does, it will be worth waiting for.
We do know that the Mullins' pair Douvan and Un De Sceaux will go head to head in Tuesday's Champion Chase and that Getabird and Mengli Khan will represent the rival stables in opposition on the same day, but after that it's mostly guesswork.
"This is going to be their last run for a long while and they're all fit and well," said Mullins. "We're lucky enough that we have nice horses to run in those big races and they will have to run against each other. There isn't anywhere left to hide. This is it. There's a lot of racing, there's a lot of prize money. If you're talking about the championship, I think it's all to play for still. It's going to be a good week, an exciting week."
Mullins made no effort to disguise his admiration for Punchestown, a Festival that yielded him just short of €1m in prize money last year. "Considering where Punchestown was 20, 25 years ago, the amount of class racing that's here now, the amount of prize money that's here . . . but I think, primarily, the ground and the track that they have developed here, trainers know that they're going to get good ground.
"When you come here on the Sunday and stand at the top of the hill and look at the tracks that are laid out, the rails that are laid out, there's something for every eventuality, fresh ground every day. I don't think I've ever seen a track with these kind of facilities anywhere in the world."
"It's a brilliant week," agreed Elliott. "I really enjoy it, but it is a nerve-wracking week. I know the armoury Willie has and he's going to be chasing me hard. So in every race, seconds, thirds, fourths, even fifths, they all count.
"It's good for the public and whatever happens I'm sure Willie will shake my hand if I win it and I'll be the first one to shake his."
If you never got the chance to see George Best or Pele or Maradona grace the football field, if Mick O'Connell's sublime skills were already the stuff of legend when you started watching sport, or if Tiger Woods has only ever been a figure on a television screen, then don't miss this chance to witness horses which, all going well, will go down in history as among the very best National Hunt racing has ever seen.
Sunday Indo Sport