Saturday 16 December 2017

Faugheen heads Punchestown Champion field

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

The first four home in the Champion Hurdle are among eight entries for the Punchestown Festival equivalent on Friday fortnight, but Faugheen is as short as 1/4 to reaffirm the jaw-dropping superiority that he displayed in the Cotswolds.

Willie Mullins is responsible for five potential starters in the €200,000 Grade One, which will be sponsored for a first time by the Naas-based Queally Group firm. In an unprecedented feat, the champion trainer saddled the first three finishers in the Prestbury Park two-miler last month.

Arctic Fire, runner-up on that occasion, crashed out when in a commanding position alongside eventual winner Jezki at the final flight in last week's Aintree Hurdle, so it remains to be seen if he will be ready in time.

Mullins' Annie Power, another galling last-flight faller at Cheltenham, has been put in the Kildare venue's two-mile contest, as well as the mares' Grade One a day later and the three-mile Grade One a day earlier, a race for which Hurricane Fly and Arctic Fire are also among the 27 entries.

Jezki, conqueror of four-time winner Hurricane Fly last year, could bid for back-to-back victories, though Jessica Harrington was reluctant to commit JP McManus' seven-year-old so soon after his deserved success last Thursday.

"Jezki gave us a great day at Liverpool and he has come out of the race well," Harrington said. "We are certainly looking at going to Punchestown again, although a decision probably won't be made until later in the week."

Jezki and Harry Fry's Aintree Hurdle runner-up Rock On Ruby are also in the three-miler.

One man who won't be on duty at the Kildare festival is the top-class amateur rider Colman Sweeney, who has announced his retirement.

The Castlelyons, Co Cork native is the only jockey to have won three Foxhunters at Cheltenham, his 2012 and '13 successes on his father Rodger's Salsify following his victory aboard Paul Nicholls' Sleeping Night 10 years ago.


In 2012, Sweeney returned to emotional scenes in the revered Cotswolds winners' berth after an inspired ride aboard Salsify. He had only been back in the saddle for a few months after a combination of an injury lay-off and a battle with the scales that saw his weight peak at 13st 10lb prevented him riding for nearly two years.

Salsify failed to fire in this year's Foxhunters and is finished for the season. Sweeney, who is pursuing a new career as a racecourse cameraman, said: "I think Dad is still a little bit disappointed in me as he feels I'm leaving him in the lurch.

"I'll keep helping out as much as I can and it will be a bit strange to see someone else on Salsify's back, but all good things come to an end."

Irish Independent

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