Ruby's return for Punchestown would provide fitting end to superb jumps season
We're into the final furlong of the 2013-14 jumps season. In two weeks' time it will all be memories – but at least we have the Punchestown Festival to give us one final hurrah.
The three championship meetings – Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown – each have a very different feel. Cheltenham is the most intense and most serious. Aintree attracts a more urban crowd – and with the Grand National as its centrepiece, where a 'good story' is more important than the best horse winning, it is naturally more relaxed.
Punchestown is more like a carnival. With the races staged later in the day – and usually better weather – racegoers seem happier simply to enjoy the spectacle of top-class horses racing each other. That's not to say the racing is anything less than superbly competitive, but it's not quite so do-or-die. It is a celebration of jumping racing as a whole.
I can't wait to see the Hurricane Fly-Jezki clash in the Racing Post Champion Hurdle. Can the wily old champ turn the tables on the upstart? I'd say he can. He has always been a better horse at Punchestown than at Cheltenham, and he doesn't have that punishing hill to blunt his finishing speed.
But it would also be lovely for the Harrington family, who lost Johnny recently, to have a chance to raise the trophy in his honour if Jezki won.
Willie Mullins could – should – be king of Punchestown again. Cheltenham winners Vautour, Faugheen and Don Poli are all aiming to double up, and Champagne Fever is looking for Arkle consolation in the Growise Champion Novice Chase.
And it looks like Mullins won't have to do it without the help of Ruby Walsh, who plans to be back on a horse this weekend. It's a month since he fractured his humerus and dislocated his shoulder in the Triumph Hurdle and somewhere there's a physiotherapist who needs a holiday.
Walsh will undoubtedly be champion jockey, despite having missed a month of the season, but it would be great to see him finish the season where he belongs – in the saddle.
The Moore family's Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Sire De Grugy stays at home in England, having fulfilled his connections' dreams this winter. It makes for a very open Boylesports Champion Chase; my heart goes for the old boy Sizing Europe, but my more rational head thinks it could be one for Alan King's improving Balder Succes.
The pick of the Bibby Financial Services Ireland Punchestown Gold Cup entries are the Mullins pair of Boston Bob and On His Own. They top the betting and it's hard to look past them. It's great that Nicky Henderson and the Waley-Cohen family are bringing Long Run for a spin, but he's not quite the horse he was in his glory days and I think he'll have to settle for a place.
The Tiger Roll-Guitar Pete clash in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle is a fascinating one. The score is one-all in their Grade One meetings.
Guitar Pete benefited from a vintage Paul Carberry ride at Aintree, just as Very Wood did at Cheltenham: wait, wait, wait and fire. I'd love to see him score a big one at Punchestown as well.
One hero of this season we won't be seeing at Punchestown is Jim Culloty's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere. His victory was one of the highlights of the year for me, and jockey Davy Russell's utter incredulity at winning was emotional viewing.
Jockey and trainer had endured torrid times this season, and to bring that one off against the odds was incredible. They both spoke from the heart afterwards and touched a lot of people. If I was Culloty, I'm not sure I'd bother running Lord Windermere until next year's Gold Cup – Cheltenham in March is clearly his place!
But it's been a tough season for lots of people. Injuries have plagued the jockey tribe – Bryan Cooper, Jason Maguire, Daryl Jacob, Niall Madden and Mikey Fogarty are among those on the injured list along with Ruby.
It's impossible to overstate how much I admire men and women who love the thrill of riding horses at speed so much that they are prepared to risk serious injury every day to do it.
It has been said before, but nothing brings you back down to earth quicker than a horse. In 2013, Cooper rode three Cheltenham Festival winners. At the same meeting in 2014, he broke his leg for the second time in 10 months, this time smashing it to pieces, and will be out for a long time. What's amazing is that every day he will be itching to get back on a horse and risk doing it all over again.
I was interested to see Jacob say in his 'Horse & Hound' column this week that he was looking forward to going to Badminton Horse Trials next month, and how you'd never catch him jumping anything as scary at those fences.
I can assure Daryl that 99pc of the field at Badminton would be horrified at the idea of swapping jobs – at least at Badminton you don't have 20 other horses and jockeys around you to worry about. But I like to see horsemen and women who work in different equestrian fields showing respect for each other – whether it is racing, dressage, eventing, showing, showjumping or endurance riding, everyone who works with horses can learn something from each other.
Twenty years or so ago, a group of jump jockeys rode round the eventing course at Gatcombe and a group of eventers rode round Aintree. Wouldn't it be great to do that again? How about eventers like Elizabeth Power, Sam Watson and Joseph Murphy riding a race over the banks at Punchestown and Davy Russell, Robbie Power and Barry Geraghty having a crack at Tattersalls or Ballindenisk?
It would draw a huge crowd and would be a great way of showcasing the different skills of these talented horsemen and women. And Paul Carberry? He'd be as good at riding the hunter champion at the RDS as he would be jumping in the Aga Khan Trophy.
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