Wednesday 17 January 2018

Champion and pretender reach for the title wire

Watering taking place on the track ahead of today’s start of the Punchestown Festival
Watering taking place on the track ahead of today’s start of the Punchestown Festival

Johnny Ward

They call it Peerless Punchestown and, while some may disagree, no Festival in Ireland quite compares with this week's extravaganza.

As Gigginstown's Eddie O'Leary told the Irish Independent podcast for the Festival yesterday, Cheltenham is first, Punchestown ahead of everything else. This year, indeed, what goes on in Co Kildare arguably means every bit as much as Cheltenham to two giants in particular.

Trainer Gordon Elliot. Photo: Sportsfile
Trainer Gordon Elliot. Photo: Sportsfile

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are gentlemen, with no little humility considering all that they have achieved. These two trainers, who had sensational Cheltenham Festivals, are also extremely proud, hungry and never content to wallow in past glories. What matters is now. And now is five days of our showcase Festival.

As punters, we can rely on Elliott and Mullins with the faith of the Apostles. And then there was Labaik.

I had wagered antepost on Melon in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham and felt more than a pinch of self-pity when he beat everything bar a horse which had pretty much planted himself three runs in succession in Ireland.

For whatever reason, Labaik consented to run at Cheltenham, and I've never greeted so many people who had backed a horse who was returned 25/1.

Elliott would want 100 more horses with Labaik's ability, but none with his brain. For whatever reason, the grey either fancies it or he does not. One could light a fire under him to get him going, were it allowed.

His clash with Melon in the first of the Grade Ones, The Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, is utterly intriguing. No horse, Elliott has long argued, has ever shown so much toe on his Cullentra gallops. He has that speed and the other of being motionless when the tape is released. Over to you, Labaik.

Elliott has no secrets. "Everyone knows at this stage if he jumps off on terms, he has a massive engine - but he has to jump off!

"We didn't end up doing a whole lot different with him at Cheltenham than we will be doing at Punchestown, as Busty (Amond, assistant trainer) was down there with him.

"The starter didn't really need to go near him with the 'long tom' (whip); he was just on a going day that day. All we can do is hope that he's on another going day. He seems to be a great form and worked well last Wednesday."

Few horses he trained achieved the praise Mullins heaped on Un De Sceaux after his brave win in the Ryanair. The tearaway will be attempting to make it four Grade One wins in a row when he faces seven rivals as the headline horse on day one.

Facing the truth, this is not a deep renewal. Sprinter Sacre is retired, Douvan on the treatment table, Special Tiara on the couch. The purse of €250,000 pays no heed and, realistically, Mullins probably needs to win this race if he is to catch the long-time leader.

Mullins has over two decades in age on Elliott, and their backgrounds are dramatically different.

The champion was sired by the great and legendary trainer Paddy, a truly remarkable man; Elliott has no background in racing whatever.

The gap between Ireland's leading National Hunt trainers is €402,405 heading into the opening day of the Festival.

Mullins was first crowned champion trainer in the 2000/2001 season and regained his crown in 2007/2008. He has held the title ever since.

Intriguingly, he won over €800,000 at the Festival last year; were he to replicate that, his final figure would be right up there with his record one of last term, which is pretty incredible considering the 60 Gigginstown-owned steeds he surrendered in September, the death of Vautour and that neither Annie Power nor Faugheen has run at all so far.

If Un De Sceaux wins, Mullins could attack Wednesday then with the confidence of Paul Townend on Penhill at Cheltenham and that novice's clash in the Grade One over three miles against Monalee and Presenting Percy is one of the highlights of the week for sure.

That race is quite the warm-up for Wednesday's feature Gold Cup, in which Sizing John and Coneygree face four other foes, including Elliott's Outlander and Mullins' Djakadam.

Then we've the Champion Bumper, with seven runners including the Mullins-trained Carter McKay, Cheltenham heroine Fayonagh and her exciting buddy at Elliott's, Poli Roi.

There is a public clamouring for an Annie Power swan-song. If she were the dominant lady of recent seasons, Jessica Harrington - with her Gold Cup and Irish National in recent months - has established her own reign.

Annie, meanwhile, had a meeting with former Epsom Derby hero Camelot and will become a mammy. Annie's sporadic visits to the track - 17 runs in a career, spanning the guts of five years - has done little to dent her popularity. Please let her turn up on Friday.

The going at the home of Irish jumps combat outside Naas is good to yielding on the main tracks, good to firm on the cross country course, which has been watered. Conditions are to get colder with some showers expected throughout the Festival's first half or so.

For bookmakers, this is no Cheltenham and perhaps it never will be - but the significance of the five-day extravaganza should not be downplayed. Liam Glynn of BoyleSports says: "The Festival continues to see turnover grow and it is expected this week around €10m will be turned over across the Irish retail betting industry."

Over 100,000 are expected to visit Punchestown over the five days, two of them knowing they are involved in a duel that nobody had expected at the start of the season. If it can stretch out to Saturday, the 'Family Day', the nippers will be party to the conclusion or a war.

Bring it on.

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