Friday 24 November 2017

Punchestown Outlook: Fitting conclusion to seminal season

Vicente (left) and Sam Twiston-Davies edge out Cogry to claim Saturday’s Scottish Grand National at Ayr for trainer Paul Nicholls. Photo: PA WIRE
Vicente (left) and Sam Twiston-Davies edge out Cogry to claim Saturday’s Scottish Grand National at Ayr for trainer Paul Nicholls. Photo: PA WIRE

Johnny Ward

As one led astray into a horse racing career, with an occasional diversion into soccer, rarely a week departs without reflection on how fortunate I am.

Two of our greatest sportsmen could saunter through Ireland's city streets with sporadic recognition. Seamus Callanan and Richie Hogan were at a gig lately with fellow sportsmen.

"We were told beforehand Hogan wasn't speaking," one writer recalls.

"The understanding was Seamus would, but then we found out that he wouldn't be talking either."

The gagging of our stars in Gaelic games is a refuge from an era of paranoia that to the rest of us seems laughable. Come summer, my colleagues in football and hurling will find it impossible to get a line off the Carlow corner-back.

I can ring the world's best jumps trainer, Willie Mullins, or the biggest Flat trainer on the planet, Aidan O'Brien. They almost always answer; if they don't they apologise after calling back. We take it for granted, while the hurling hack goes to press briefings and is compelled to concoct a cake from crumbs.

Absurd

What the trainers say matters, but never has there been such deviation from this like the National Hunt trainers' title race of 2017, when we were subjected to a cross between the anodyne and the absurd.

Gordon Elliott was catapulted into what had become a non-event when Gigginstown's split with Willie Mullins thieved the champion trainer of five-dozen horses - Elliott getting many of the best ones. Immediately, Paddy Power made him favourite, but was within a few hours forced by wagers to put Mullins into odds-on.

In those months since, dominated by Elliott, the firm has made numerous changes to its prices. These markets are mainly for PR purposes, but Paddy Power has laid some reasonable bets too.

One insider said on Saturday: "Willie's fans have kept the faith, moving him in to 10/3 having been 9/2. This market has captured the racing public's imagination."

As he built a lead that stands at €402,405, Elliott insisted he had "absolutely no chance", followed by a mischievous smile. Mullins has muttered that it adds another dimension, loath to betraying how much a tenth title matters to him. He will throw everything and the stable dog at it next week. It means a great, great deal.

Here is a proud man of a racing dynasty, who took a calculated gamble when severing ties with Gigginstown. Clearly he must be wealthy, so did a fee increase mean more than losing 60 of his best? Perhaps it was the principle of it all.

The O'Learys can see a victory for Elliott as vindication. Mullins is only too aware.

While the Irish National was built up to be a clincher, it was not, with Bless The Wings' second-place €100,000 true to the narrative: Mullins leads in win purses, but has been killed by place money, true to Elliott having run 1,177 horses this term to his 508.

Four Grade Ones, each with a €250,000 purse, may be critical. The first is tomorrow's BoyleSports Champion Chase. Un De Sceaux is odds-on and this could be a big race for Mullins. Elliott has two rags in The Game Changer and Realt Mor.

Wednesday's Coral Gold Cup is at the mercy of Sizing John. The chance of Djakadam picking up money is obvious. Elliott has Outlander, which bombed last time.

In Thursday's Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle, Elliott has six, but Apple's Jade won't run. Nichols Canyon is no better than 6/4 for Willie. In Friday's BETDAQ Champion Hurdle, Annie Power is a maybe. Could she take on Elliott's mad novice Labaik?

Last year Mullins took €846,800 at the Festival; Elliott won €193,475. That lady of not inconsiderable heft has yet to take the stage.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Shane Foley was brilliant on last-to-first Shannon Soul at Limerick on Saturday, winning by a neck at 10/1.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It's a rule that basically means you're riding for the punter and the horse side of things has been thrown out the window a little bit."

- Robbie Power's views on the new Rule 212, which deals with non-triers.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

"The best of luck to Paul Moloney in his retirement we will miss him in the weighroom & watching him win on horses that never should have." Barry Geraghty (@barryjgeraghty) pays tribute.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

Denis Hogan's Nulife, 16s into 4s, landed the each-way punt in fourth at Limerick on Saturday.

Upping the ante

The Irish Grand National's make-up prompted considerable chat beforehand, though the race worked out differently than many may have suspected it would.

With Gigginstown running 14 and Gordon Elliott 10, there seemed little chance for the little guy. Instead, the first four places involved four different owners, four different trainers.

Willie Mullins was hoping Polidam, a recruit from France, would get in. Back him instead at Punchestown on Wednesday over a shorter trip.

BET: Polidam in Guinness Handicap Chase, 1pt win 8/1

Irish Independent

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