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Home stars to serve up rich feast of jumping

It's not unusual for the Punchestown Festival to suffer somewhat for its positioning at the tail end of the jumping season.

Many of the best horses will have been roughed off for the summer after a long winter, with the prospect of fast ground often deterring trainers from going to the well once more.

In the past two years, Denman and Kauto Star have both contested the week's Gold Cup showpiece, only to turn in alarmingly poor performances on the back of equally sensational ones.

Traditionally, that prospect of being burnt out or over the top, which can further increase the prospect of injury on quick ground, is an accepted risk that any trainer who runs a good horse at the Kildare festival might have had to consider.

Moreover, with other marquee fixtures at Aintree and Sandown also vying for what's still on the go, Punchestown can be a hard sell to prospective cross-channel raiders, even allowing for the tremendous prize money on offer.

This year, notwithstanding that Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls will field lesser teams than they might have owing to a protracted duel for the British trainers' title that Neptune Collonges effectively won for Nicholls at Aintree, the gods have shone favourably on Dick O'Sullivan (pictured below) and his entourage. The rains have come in sufficient quantity and on time, and a high percentage of the horses that you'd like to see at Punchestown will be there.

Tomorrow, Big Zeb and Sizing Europe, first and second in a thriller last year and winners of successive Champion Chases, head a fine programme in the Boylesports.com-sponsored feature. Alderwood, Tom Mullins' County Hurdle hero that stylishly followed up in a Fairyhouse Grade Two, could step up to Grade One company in the Evening Herald Novices' Hurdle, where he would likely meet Gigginstown Stud's Supreme Novices' third Trifolium.

Sir Des Champs, so impressive under Davy Russell in the Jewson at Prestbury Park, will also try out at the top level for a first time when he faces a potential clash with the Irish Grand National victor Lion Na Bearnai in the Growise Novice Chase.

On Thursday, First Lieutenant, another Gigginstown novice, embarks on an experimental return to two miles to tackle Philip Hobbs' Menorah in the race that Michael O'Leary sponsors via Ryanair.

The same day, Quevega and Voler La Vedette will go toe to toe for what promises to be a fascinating Ladbrokes.com World Series Hurdle, 24 hours in advance of an intriguing Rabobank Champion Hurdle rematch between Hurricane Fly and Overturn.

Then there is Wednesday's Gold Cup, with the returning Quito De La Roque and Hennessy winner Quel Esprit in line for a belter alongside last year's winner Follow The Plan and Rubi Light.

Boston Bob endeavours to atone for his Albert Bartlett defeat in the three-mile novice, while Champagne Fever, his Willie Mullins-trained stablemate, might have it all to do to confirm the form of his Champion Bumper triumph over New Year's Eve in the equivalent Betchronicle.com Grade One.

Among a raft of classy entries for that race is Philip Fenton's Fairyhouse scorer Venture Capital, a JP McManus purchase that is extremely well regarded.

All told, with the exception of Flemenstar, practically every decent home-based horse that is fit and able is expected to be in attendance at Punchestown.

That should make for a cracking week's racing.

Dubious rationale

for race promotion

Back in August, HRI revealed that Wednesday's three-mile novice hurdle would be upgraded to Grade One status.

The HRI blurb told us that last term's renewal, which saw Askanna beat Mossey Joe, "achieved the highest race rating of all the novice hurdles staged in Ireland last season".

Really? Apart from the oddness of races rather than horses being rated, would Askanna or Mossey Joe have held a candle to First Lieutenant, Oscars Well or Grandouet in any of the Grade Ones that they contested last season?

In short, no, and the Anglo-Irish classifications for 2010/'11 confirm as much, with the latter trio and Shot From The Hip all rated higher than Askanna.

When the race in question was won by The Midnight Club in 2009, it didn't even have pattern status.

It was a Grade Three when Rigour Bob Back won in 2010, and it was a Grade Two in 2011. Now it is a Grade One.

Given that none of the last three winners are Grade One horses, it doesn't stack up that this particular contest demanded promotion.

Still, a three-mile novice hurdle undoubtedly required promoting for the sake of balance in the calendar. It just so happened to be this one that was identified as most suitable. There's probably no harm in that, but there'd be no harm in just coming out and saying as much either.

Ride of the weekend

Timmy Murphy showed why he remains one of the single most gifted practitioners in the business by coaxing Merigo to a second Scottish Grand National victory at Ayr on Saturday.

The white-faced 11-year-old, second last year after a famous triumph in 2010, was in top gear all the way, but Murphy managed to keep him in touch.

When they turned in, the effort required to do so appeared to have taken its toll, as Merigo looked a clear second best to Auroras Encore.

For the second week in a row, though, a National served up a breathtaking finish as a Murphy in vintage form inched his gallant partner home by a head.

Training performance

of the weekend

Ger Lyons did well to produce Strada Colorato to break its maiden at Naas on Saturday.

Once-raced in 2011, the three-year-old is a big, green sort that clearly isn't yet as sharp as he might be, either physically or mentally. However, he has a bit of class, and Lyons had him just ready enough to compensate for his greenness and prevail by a short head for Gary Carroll.


2 -- The number of runners which Aidan O'Brien yesterday confirmed he will send out in the Newmarket 2,000 Guineas, comprising current 11/10 favourite Camelot and Power.

25,000 -- The price in guineas that Katie Walsh paid for Saturday's Greenham Stakes scorer Caspar Netscher as a yearling in October 2010. Walsh, who is expanding her pinhooking enterprise every year, sold at a profit of 40,000gns at a breeze-up six months later, and the three-time Group winner has now amassed £174,589 in prize money for its current owners.


@cathygannon353 Not good, I think I broke my jaw

-- Cathy Gannon reveals her latest injury after Saturday's fall riding work, and the attached photo, which looks as though it was taken in the ambulance en route to the hospital, makes for excruciating viewing.

Irish Independent