Sport Punchestown

Saturday 25 November 2017

Un De Sceaux, Mullins v Elliott, 120k fans and a farewell to Annie Power

Mullins’ star set for centre stage on day one

The Un De Sceaux and Ruby Walsh combination will form a critical part of Team Mullins. Photo: Getty Images
The Un De Sceaux and Ruby Walsh combination will form a critical part of Team Mullins. Photo: Getty Images

Johnny Ward

Punchestown is upon us all - the wait is over.

Ireland's greatest National Hunt Festival, which may attract up to 120,000 patrons over the next five days, will be as exhilarating as ever, and may allow an adoring public to say goodbye to Annie Power, set to have her last run on Friday.

But before all of that there is so much to enjoy. This afternoon, the incredible Un De Sceaux will bid for glory in the feature event. Un De Sceaux, like so many of us, has calmed down a bit with age: gone is the tearaway leader soon 20 lengths clear, though Willie Mullins still lets him gallop on his own each morning, away from other steeds.

Un De Sceaux will be a critical part of the Mullins team. The champion trainer is attempting to win that crown for the 10th year in succession but bookmakers make him outsider in his quest to deny Gordon Elliott.

Elliott, indeed, is over €400,000 ahead of his big rival, thanks in the main to the support of Gigginstown and Michael O'Leary. However, as Mullins beat his Punchestown tally by over €600,000 12 months ago, he knows the fat lady certainly hasn't sung as yet.

Today too we have Elliott's Labaik in The Herald Champion Novice Hurdle - at least on paper. This horse is very much a law onto Labaik. He may decide to stand still at the start. Or he may decide he fancies it. Or he may have a think about it and set off 50 lengths behind, in which case he will surely not again beat Melon, as he did when superb at Cheltenham.

Punchestown is estimated to be worth in the region of €70m to the economy, with a large crowd coming over from Britain. They are a little sore just now, since the hosts were staggeringly meek at Cheltenham, the Irish enjoying 19 winners to a paltry nine for home trainers.

The likes of Coneygree and My Tent Or Yours will help to add spice to the big races later on in the week. Today, Un De Sceaux faces some formidable foes off the boat in God's Own and Sir Valentino, both trained by Tom George.

And then there is Fox Norton, which is fresh from a gritty win at Cheltenham which in theory makes him a major rival to Un De Sceaux. Trained by Colin Tizzard, he is owned by Alan Potts, whose Sizing John won the Gold Cup under Robbie Power last month.

Power impressed Potts so much that he snapped him up as his retained rider when Jessica Harrington does not need the 35-year-old. Sizing John's clash with Coneygree will be something to savour tomorrow.

Today, we have three Grade Ones. Ladies' day on Friday will happily coincide with Annie Power's first run of the season and last of her career. Saturday is 'Family Day' - but if Mullins has closed the gap to an amount he can feasibly negotiate by then, there may be an air of tension that will further captivate Irish racing fans.

Prize money this year sees another big increase: 12 Grade One races and total money on offer of just under €3m.

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