Monday 22 January 2018

Punchestown platter has plenty to whet the appetite

Festival has a spring in its step and shows no signs of slowing down

A general view of racegoers at Punchestown Racecourse last year
A general view of racegoers at Punchestown Racecourse last year

Ian McClean

It is hard not to feel sorry for Punchestown. Last in line of the spring festivals, like King Canute it rails against the irrefutable tide of the dawn of the new Flat season as the tsunami of Newmarket's Guineas crashes down all around the Kildare venue's fifth and final day.

If the first principle of marketing is that you never dilute your proposition, then Punchestown arrives at precisely the time of year when the racing proposition, caught between two codes, is at its most confusing for the consumer.

Yet in spite of recessions and the odd biblical deluge in uncomfortably recent times, in addition to the unwelcome attentions of jump racing's rich and more illustrious relation, Punchestown 2014 is prospering anew.

If Punchestown is a bellwether for the general economy, then take heart. Everything is increasing. Attendances, prize money, sponsors, hospitality, UK visitors – by any reasonable measure you might throw at a festival, Punchestown 2014 is outgunning its predecessors. Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin on the cover of a current gossip magazine might be headlining it with "like everyone we'll be happier with less" but not so for what, with almost 15,000 covers, has become the largest corporate hospitality event on the Irish social calendar: Punchestown Lunchestown.

Many of the corporates will be oblivious in their seclusion to the reality that there is actually horse racing attached, and that will be to miss out on the fact that amongst the 12 Grade Ones no fewer than 17 Cheltenham and Aintree winners are entered over the five days.

Predictably, given his Festival record, no small number of the headline acts will originate from the Closutton yard of Willie Mullins, who will adopt his habitual policy of divide and conquer in keeping his stable stars apart in an effort to maximise on opportunity during the week. Remarkably, both Quevega and Hurricane Fly are bidding to win the same race at the Festival this week for the fifth consecutive year. Hurricane Fly is attempting to win for the sixth time on the bounce having won the Grade One novice event in the year before his domination of the Champion Hurdle began.

The staging of a Grade One mares event on Saturday de-escalates any conflicting issue that might present itself in keeping Annie Power away from Mullins' other flagship hurdlers as now there are three unique Grade One options at two miles, two-and-a-quarter and three miles. Mullins could hardly have scripted it better himself.

And, as at Cheltenham, Mullins will again be able to separate his supercharged novices Vautour and Faugheen. Both will be at prohibitive odds to follow up on their dominant Cheltenham victories, this time much closer to home.

Without an intermediate distance two-and-a-half mile Grade One championship chase on the programme, Mullins is forced to pit the Graham Wylie pair of Boston Bob and On His Own against each other in Wednesday's Gold Cup.

One interesting feature of the build-up to the Festival has been the extent to which trainers of high-class novice chasers have entertained the notion of taking on their more experienced elders instead of sticking to their novice category. Both Willie Mullins and Alan King had similar thoughts about running Champagne Fever and Balder Succes respectively in the open Champion Chase, as opposed to the Ryanair, but both seemed to have thought better of it, while Pat Fahy still has the option of the Gold Cup for Morning Assembly, which heads the market for Tuesday's novice Growise event.

The two-mile Boylesports Champion Chase is certainly the poorer for the upgrading of, and the clash with, Sandown's Celebration Chase as Sire De Grugy would have been a fantastic addition to the line-up here. However, the Champion Chaser's winning appearance at Sandown yesterday has at least persuaded two of his UK confederates, Module and Somersby, over here and made the race perhaps the most competitive Grade One of the week.

Arguably the most appetising confrontation is the rematch of Hurricane Fly and Jezki and if they both turn up with their 'A' games, then it should be a face-off to savour. If the notion that Hurricane Fly is not at his best around Cheltenham has any substance, then it is offset by his practical invincibility around Punchestown. Not that Jezki's Punchestown record has any blemish, mind you.

Perhaps his most impressive ever performance came at this meeting last year when he demolished the opposition by a wide margin. He may have been underrated at Cheltenham but he certainly won't be at his home track on Friday.

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