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Eamonn Sweeney: 'The shadow of Cheltenham is ever present at its Irish equivalent'


Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend on their way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month. Their clash with Kemboy at Punchestown is eagerly awaited. Photo: Patrick McCann/Racing Post

Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend on their way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month. Their clash with Kemboy at Punchestown is eagerly awaited. Photo: Patrick McCann/Racing Post

Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend on their way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month. Their clash with Kemboy at Punchestown is eagerly awaited. Photo: Patrick McCann/Racing Post

Punchestown will be different this year. In 2017 and 2018 it was the stage for the dramatic denouement of one of Ireland's great sporting showdowns, with Willie Mullins overhauling Gordon Elliott in the race for the trainers' title.

Those two seasons were all about Mullins v Elliott. This season has been about Willie Mullins. He enters the final festival with more than a million euro to spare over his rival after a season which may be the apogee of a magnificent career.

It's not just that Mullins looks set to break the prize money record he set last season, the €1.016m he needs to do so is eminently achievable for a trainer who won €492,875 on the Wednesday of last year's Punchestown alone.

It's also that he's broken new ground this year. The Cheltenham Gold Cup which had always eluded him arrived courtesy of Al Boum Photo and the other gap on his CV, the Irish Grand National, was filled on Easter Monday when Burrows Saint triumphed with two other Mullins horses behind him.

Willie Mullins probably hasn't been given enough credit for his achievements over the past couple of years. A lot of the coverage of the race for the trainers' title focused on Elliott's achievement in putting it up to the man who'd ruled supreme since wresting the crown from Noel Meade in 2008.

That's understandable. 'Young revolutionary seeks to overthrow the ancien regime' is one of everyone's favourite stories. And it may well be that Elliott's powerful challenge has provided the impetus necessary for Mullins to ascend previously unscaled peaks.

But now that Mullins has re-established dominance, it's worth saluting the achievement of a man who's been at the forefront of a golden Age in Irish national hunt racing. Before the age of Mullins it would have been unthinkable for Irish-trained horses to win more races than their English counterparts at Cheltenham. Now it's a surprise when that doesn't happen.

Mullins is to jump racing what Aidan O'Brien is to flat racing. They set the standards of excellence in their sport like nobody else from this country. They are two of our great national success stories. So perhaps it's no surprise that the most intriguing contest at Punchestown, which starts on Tuesday and runs till Saturday, involves internecine warfare between Mullins' charges.

It's just as well that horses don't read newspapers. If they did, Al Boum Photo would be feeling pretty vexed at the moment. All the focus on Mullins' Gold Cup milestone was largely unaccompanied by any great love for the horse responsible.

The feeling seemed to be that with leading contenders misfiring all around him, Al Boum Photo, the second longest-priced winner since 2000, had done well to seize his opportunity but might have been a bit fortunate. That prognosis is reflected in the fact that the Gold Cup winner isn't even the favourite for the Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday.

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Heading the betting will be Kemboy, whose contribution to the blue riband at Cheltenham consisted of unseating David Mullins at the first fence. He atoned at Aintree three weeks later with an imperious nine-length win in a Betway Bowl which included the third and fifth-placed horses in the Gold Cup.

It may have been the most impressive chasing performance of the year and raised questions about what might have happened had Kemboy not come such an early cropper at Cheltenham. Should he repeat the victory at Punchestown he may well be regarded as 'the real Gold Cup winner' in the same way as Cork people regarded Jack Lynch as 'the real Taoiseach' when Liam Cosgrave was in charge.

Al Boum Photo, on the other hand, has a chance to repeat the feat of Sizing John, who two years ago arrived at Punchestown an under-rated Gold Cup winner but marked himself as a great champion when winning a classic contest from Djakadam and Coneygree.

Adding further spice to the contest is the presence of Bellshill, who entered the Gold Cup as the number one Mullins contender but never got going and was pulled up early. As defending champion and winner of the Leopardstown Gold Cup in February, he can't be discounted.

Tuesday's Champion Chase is probably second to the Gold Cup in terms of quality but its most intriguing feature may be the return of Douvan, one of Irish racing's great 'might have been' stories.

It's easy to forget how extraordinary Douvan seemed in his heyday when he beat Sizing John into second place five times by an average of more than 10 lengths. The Champion Chase at Cheltenham two years ago, which was to have marked his ascent into the pantheon, turned into a nightmare when he finished seventh after incurring an injury which saw him miss out on a year's racing.

On his return, he fell when going well in the same race but at Punchestown looked a mere shadow of his old self when finishing runner-up to stablemate Un De Sceaux. A further setback means that the Mullins-trained Douvan will come to Punchestown after another 12-month lay-off. He's not certain to run, but if he does he'll face Min, phenomenal in a 20-length Aintree win after a disappointing Cheltenham and Un De Sceaux, chasing the ninth Group One of a remarkable career.

The shadow of Cheltenham is ever present at its Irish equivalent. Tuesday provides a chance to run the rule over Klassical Dream, winner of the Supreme Novices and current second favourite for next year's Champion Hurdle.

And on Thursday, his Mullins stablemate and runaway Arkle Trophy winner Duc Des Genievres may face a more severe test from Chacun Pour Soi, who just might be the latest in the long line of horses bought in France, owned by Rich Ricci and turned into a champion by the great trainer. Chacun Pour Soi's one race this year saw him win by 31 lengths at Naas. Ornua, winner of the Maghull Novices Chase at Aintree, may challenge for Henry de Bromhead who has had an outstanding season.

Cheltenham echoes are perhaps strongest of all in the Daily Mirror Novices Hurdle on Wednesday with a rematch between the top three in the Albert Bartlett. The brilliant Rachael Blackmore stole a march that day with a bold ride on 50/1 shot Minella Indo for De Bromhead. Elliott's Commander of Fleet and Mullins' Allaho will seek revenge.

It's not all about the big trainers. One of the most popular Cheltenham winners was City Island, who won the Ballymore Novices Hurdle for Martin Brassil, and he'll go in the Alannah Homes Champion Novices Hurdle on Friday where he'll be challenged by English raider Reserve Tank. Colin Tizzard's horse missed Cheltenham and was a highly impressive surprise winner of the Mersey Novices Hurdle at Aintree.

Irish racing is not short of fantastic festivals. Galway can't be topped for atmosphere but Listowel in September runs it close. The Classic weekends at The Curragh lead the day in terms of quality. Last week was a reminder of the special chord Fairyhouse at Easter strikes with so many people. Leopardstown after Christmas is wonderful and the new Dublin Racing Festival at the course is a terrific innovation.

Yet Punchestown beats all. For sustained excellence, 12 Group One races, only Cheltenham surpasses it. There's something wonderful too about the way it sets the seal on the season, providing one final perfect dramatic flourish before close of play.

This season has been one of the best of all at home and abroad. Cheltenham was magnificent with Gavin Cromwell and Espoir D'Allen striking a blow for the little guy in the Champion Hurdle, the emotional high of Paisley Park's win in the Stayers Hurdle for blind owner Andrew Gemmell, the headline-making triumph for Bryony Frost on Frodon in the Ryanair Chase, the record-breaking victory of Altior in the Champion Chase and 14 Irish winners.

Tiger Roll became probably the most popular Grand National winner since Red Rum and ITV made racing big box office cross channel once more, hitting new heights in broadcasting the sport. Here at home, Blackmore's extraordinary effort to annex the jockeys' title showed that gender equality is a long way further along in horse racing, and equestrianism in general, than in any other sport.

In the end, she was edged out by Paul Townend, who 12 months ago at Punchestown committed one of the most derided blunders in Irish racing history, missing the final fence on Al Boum Photo when apparently set to win the Champion Novice Chase.

They've both come a long way since then and perhaps it's that journey which has led to Townend opting to remain with Al Boum Photo on Wednesday, the claims of Kemboy notwithstanding. Should that decision prove correct, Al Boum Photo will surely be entitled to give one of those, 'A lot of people here wrote me off coming into this, but that only spurred me on' interviews.

Here goes. Punchestown. Five days to wrap it all up. This is the life.

McMahon’s message can protect our young from the toxic drug of dissident republicanism

Philly McMahon has become one of the most inspirational figures in Irish sport. I’ve lost count of the number of times some Dubbosceptic rural GAA fan has professed their surprise at how impressed they’ve been by him.

My eldest daughter and her transition year classmates went to hear him talk at a conference in Cork. She thought he was the best speaker she’d ever seen and that the story he told, which among other things stressed the essential humanity of the prisoners he worked with in Mountjoy, was one they needed to hear.

So it was good to see McMahon respond to the murder of Lyra McKee by tweeting, “Republicans? No. You have stepped on the grave of any republican that fought for peace throughout the troubles, you’ve pushed Unionists even further away from a United Ireland. Lyra’s death must not be in vain. Instead of rioting, march together against these barbaric animals.”

His intervention is important because extremist organisations like Saoradh have always exploited disenfranchised and disillusioned young men from marginalised communities like the one McMahon grew up in and advocates for. Dissident republicanism is just another drug being pushed to such young men.

McMahon has a personal interest in the North, his father came from West Belfast. And he is no establishment stooge, his message about the waste of human potential resulting from the lack of help for areas like his native Ballymun is a radical one. He is a welcome voice at a time like this.

Someone with McMahon’s profile can touch hearts and minds in a way that politicians and pundits cannot manage. It’s not incumbent on sportsmen to speak out about political issues, but when they do it can make a huge difference. Look at the impact of Raheem Sterling’s thoughtful contributions on the problem of racism in English football.

That’s why it would be great if other sports stars followed McMahon’s lead in speaking out on the McKee murder and the current dangerous situation in the North. The big names in Irish sport carry a certain amount of clout with youngsters in danger of being sucked into this kind of trouble. With great power comes great responsibility.

Lyra McKee was not just a talented young woman, but a good one. Looking at her work, I’m struck by an emphasis on tolerance, conciliation and persuasion rather than confrontation which is unusual in these fractious times. The death of someone so obviously on the side of decency has made an enormous impression. That awful thing which obtained for so long during The Troubles, where people checked what religion the latest victim was and who’d killed them before deciding how sorry they felt, was conspicuous by its absence.

Sometimes I feel that people on this side of the border, who are too young to remember the war in the North, regard it as a bit of a lark, Michael Collins, Derry Girls and Game of Thrones mixed together with Come Out Ye Black And Tans playing merrily away in the background.

But pick up a copy of the great Lost Lives book on the conflict or look at the CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths online and the sheer scale of the horror hits home. Those thousands of lives snuffed out and all the heartbreak involved for those left behind. Who in their right mind would want to go back there?

An uncle of mine covered Northern Ireland for RTÉ in the period when the civil rights movement began and its peaceful demands were met by violence which in turn sparked further civil unrest. “It’s very bad, Joe,” he told my father, “It’ll be going on until someone gets killed.” Things escalated more quickly than anyone could have imagined. It is foolishly complacent to think that the same thing cannot happen again. That’s why everyone, in whatever walk of life, has a responsibility to do whatever they can to prevent the nightmare beginning again.

Eight years ago, PSNI constable Ronan Kerr, a member of the Beragh Red Knights GAA club in Tyrone, was murdered by dissident republicans. At his funeral, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, county captain Brian Dooher and GAA president Christy Cooney were among those who carried the coffin. It was a hugely important act of leadership which helped repudiate the killers’ claim to represent the nationalist population.

We need more of that kind of leadership now. Who’ll step up?


Long’s young and solid mix has Bohs firing

Bohemians’ shock 1-0 win over Shamrock Rovers on Tuesday night continued a remarkable start to the season for the Gypsies. Bohs were no-one’s idea of title challengers at the start of the season, but victory in Tallaght left them second, five points behind Shams with a game in hand.

Their success has been founded on defensive obduracy and youthful enthusiasm. The former is illustrated by the concession of just four goals, all from set-pieces, in 13 league games, the latter by the presence of James Talbot (22), Darragh Leahy and Conor Levingston (21), Daniel Mandriou and James Finnerty (20), and Danny Grant (19) in the first team.

Classy midfielder Mandriou caught the eye of Mick McCarthy, who reckoned the Dublin Derby provided the best atmosphere he’d ever seen at a League of Ireland game.

Mandriou, previously with Brighton, is just one of the players who’d been with English clubs last season. Goalkeeper Talbot was with Sunderland, centre-back Finnerty with Rochdale and midfielder Levingston with Wolves. Keith Long’s successful integration of these promising youngsters is just the latest managerial triumph for a boss who’s worked miracles with slender resources in recent seasons.

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The Billy Vunipola saga seems to have brought out the worst in everyone. On the one hand you had the BT Sport commentators who kept banging on about the ‘tough time’ endured by the Saracens number eight as though he’d recently recovered from serious illness instead of being subjected to understandable criticism for his defence of Israel Folau.

On the other it was hard not to feel that some of the Irish criticism of the player seemed at least in part motivated by the hope that it might distract him from his task against Munster or possibly even see him excluded from that game or the final meeting with Leinster.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical. It’s not as if an Irish international who liked the same Folau post would escape any criticism whatsoever from some of the loudest voices in condemnation of Vunipola. Is it?

* * * * *

The death of Billy McNeill brought back memories of the great Celtic team which won the European Cup when they defeated Inter Milan 2-1 in 1967.

Yet it’s often forgotten how strong the rest of Scottish club football was at the time. The same year saw Rangers get to the Cup Winners’ Cup final before losing 1-0 in extra-time to Bayern Munich. In the Fairs Cup, Kilmarnock lost in a semi-final 4-2 to the Leeds team who set a record Division One points total that year.

Leeds lost the final 2-0 to Dynamo Zagreb, who only got past Dunfermline Athletic on away goals after drawing 4-4 over two legs in the second round. The two late winning goals in Dunfermline’s memorable 4-2 victory at East End Park were scored by one Alex Ferguson. I wonder what became of him?

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