Heads up for Harry in Stayers thriller
Fehily drives Fry's charge to last-gasp victory over Ruby and Nichols Canyon
On a day of conclusions to play havoc with collective heart-rates, a gutsy Unowhatimeanharry edged out Nichols Canyon in a Punchestown feature that summed up the thrilling spectacle of top-class jumps racing.
There was the bravery of the pair in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle, the defeat of Nichols Canyon by a head continuing an annoying week of seconds for Ruby Walsh in graded combat. There was the excitement of not knowing which would prevail.
There was the woe of Sutton Place, perhaps the most promising runner, suffering what seemed a severe injury. And the joy when it emerged subsequently it was likely nothing serious. For Willie Mullins, it was a case of another narrow miss as he chases Gordon Elliott for the trainers' title. Un De Sceaux, Djakadam and Nichols Canyon all winning - rather than their second-place finishes - would have him in front.
This was a race in which Unowhatimeanharry, only third at Cheltenham, showed how gutsy he is for Noel Fehily. Nichols Canyon looked near-certain to reel him in but just failed. Ruby Walsh rode all three of those Grade Two runners-up, as well as Melon, Battleford and Penhill, which all finished in that lonely spot too.
Trainer Harry Fry revealed that he still has not brought himself around to watching a re-run of the horse's Cheltenham defeat. "It was two absolutely top-class jockeys at their very best today and two brilliant horses as well. Another fantastic finish this week.
"They didn't go a furious gallop and I don't need to tell Noel how to ride his race," added Fry, whose Minella Awards (7/1) took the handicap hurdle later under Fehily. Mullins was left to rue a frustrating sequence. "We are just not getting the rub of the green. Footpad (in third) was running a good race and I was hoping he might finish nearer; for the first two to open up 18 lengths was a lot."
Things got better for the champion trainer, seeking a tenth successive crown, when 9/10 favourite Great Field routed his foes in the Ryanair Novice Chase, cementing his axis with Coleraine native Jody McGarvey and providing the rider with his first Grade One success.
"Jody is very brave on him. The antics at some of his fences took the shine from how good his actual performances were," said Mullins of McManus' tearaway, which put in a stunning round of jumping and cruising pace that his rivals could not match, winning by 11 lengths.
Ruby finally got off the mark for the week when 13/8 favourite Asthuria landed the mares' novice hurdle. This double saw Paddy Power trim Mullins into 11/10 for the title with Elliott now 4/6. The gap stands at €125,955.
"We're battling on but (the Elliott-trained) Apple's Jade will probably put paid to that on Saturday," said Mullins. And for McManus, as good as his big-race double was, the news Sutton Place would be OK would have meant even more.
The success of Asthuria, which headed a 1-2-3 for the stable, in the Hurricane Fly colours illustrated the ability the mare has when on her game, and Ruby Walsh never saw another rival.
"She gave us a heart attack at the last with her mistake - she's a habit of lying down jumping," Mullins said.
"Ruby said he was going to jump out today and be positive and it worked. Pravalaguna ran a cracker in second and I think she's a mare that's going to improve while it was just Good Thyne Tara's third run over hurdles. I think we have three nice mares for next season."
Such is the season for Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power that they likely expect every tight finish to go their way, as it did when the well-backed 8/1 chance Bobabout got up close home in the opener.
And Harrington doubled up when Don't Touch It (5/1) held on in the handicap chase. A son of Scorpion, he has quirks and all but pulled himself up when going in front, only to find enough to hold on under Mark Walsh.
"You can certainly see the Scorpion in him," Harrington smiled, "and Mark said he nearly threw it away by getting to the front too soon. He has lots of class.
"These distances are getting shorter and shorter. We went from a head to a short-head yesterday to a nose today with Bobabout - and that's not good for the nerves.
"That was the most amazing run because he was virtually brought down at the fourth last and Robert said it crossed his mind to pull him up.
"We're up to a bit of a high peak. The only way is down and it's usually very quickly down!"
The La Touche seemed weak in the morning paper but the spectacle lacked nothing, 10/1 chance Treo Eile beating Cantlow by a head. It was announced afterwards that First Lieutenant, which finished third, has been retired, on the same day it was revealed that 2004 National hero Amberleigh House has died at 25.
"It's the last Punchestown Festival you'll see me at," said winning rider Barry Cash afterwards. He turns 43 this year, making him the oldest pro in the jumps weighing room. JJ Slevin has barely half his years but the rider of First Lieutenant got a whopping 21 days' ban for his use of the whip in the race.
A hat-trick of wins for raiders at Punchestown is most unusual but the success of the Neil Mulholland-trained Dead Right at 8/1 was convincing, the weight he received off the favourite Next Destination telling. Winning rider Johnjo O'Neill is a son of the famous trainer.