Friday 17 August 2018

Festival bankers

 

The field including eventual winner Enniskillen, second from left under Jamie Codd, negotiates the Ruby’s Double obstacle during the race over the banks known as the Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Steeplechase at Punchestown last year – the same race gets this year’s Festival under way at 3.40 today with Enniskillen defending his crown. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
The field including eventual winner Enniskillen, second from left under Jamie Codd, negotiates the Ruby’s Double obstacle during the race over the banks known as the Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Steeplechase at Punchestown last year – the same race gets this year’s Festival under way at 3.40 today with Enniskillen defending his crown. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

It's known as Ireland's greatest National Hunt Festival and Punchestown looks like living up to that reputation this week with five days of blockbuster action to bring the curtain down on another remarkable season.

With Davy Russell set to supplement his recent Aintree Grand National triumph aboard Tiger Roll and his finest season in the saddle by being champion jockey for the third time, there's no shortage of sub-plots.

The prospect of watching Douvan, Samcro, Laurina and many other stars is an another attraction but everything pales in comparison to the fascinating duel for the Irish trainers' championship between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.

It's a story which has gripped the racing public since Mullins pipped his title rival to the post 12 months ago and the €3 million of prize-money - highlighted by 12 Grade One races - up for grabs at the Kildare track this week will tell the tale in an intriguing battle.

Elliott leads by approximately €520,000, which should be insurmountable for most mere mortals but with Mullins unleashing his star-studded team - led by Douvan, Min and Un De Sceaux in today's featured Boylesports Champion Chase - as well as a host of others throughout the week, it looks set to go down to the wire again in another thrilling finale.

Mullins is a shorter price to nab the trainers' crown after this year's Punchestown Festival (even money to Elliott's 8/11) than he was 12 months ago with bookmakers expecting another barrage as he bids to add to his 90 festival winners.

One race that neither of the leading trainers are represented in, however, is today's opening Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase over the famous Punchestown banks.

With Peter Maher's Enniskillen bidding for back-to-back successes against banks specialist Enda Bolger in a race confined to horses owned by members of the Kildare Hunt Club, it's a fitting start to the festival by saluting a huge part of their history over a course with unique demands.

With €75m expected to be wagered across the bookmaking industry by Irish racing fans on Punchestown this week - three times the amount wagered by Irish punters on the 2018 Aintree Grand National - there will be no shortage of excitement and tension.

More than 120,000 spectators are expected to visit Punchestown - estimated to be worth in the region of €70m to the Irish economy - with a swell of race-goers from Britain as the likes of Philip Hobbs and Colin Tizzard bid to bring some lucrative prizes across the Irish Sea.

With 17 Irish-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival last month, the old enemy will be looking to exact some revenge as all eyes focus on Punchestown for another special week.

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