In our Final Furlong Podcast Punchestown Special - available to download and stream here on attheraces.com – I described the Irish Trainers’ Championship as the fascinating subplot to Punchestown, only to have my friend and colleague Kevin Blake interject and say “no, it’s the main event!” He’s right. Willie Mullins - who had to play second fiddle to Noel Meade for so many years - is going all out for his 11th consecutive title, 12th in all, while Gordon Elliott – the man who has dominated National Hunt Racing this season – has made no secret of his desire to be Ireland’s Champion Trainer.
The ambition of these two titans of our sport to be crowned king has resulted in, what looks on paper, as potentially the best Punchestown Festival to date. The Champion Chase on day one sees three of Willie Mullins’ stable stars clash. This would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, but such is the value of these Grade 1s, Mullins has been forced to fire everything if he’s to reel in the more than half a million-euro lead held by Elliott.
While this battle may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in some ways further enforces the view that Irish Racing is dominated by two stables, for me it’s the story of the week. Elliott has beaten Mullins in the Irish and Aintree Grand National, and also pipped him to be leading Cheltenham trainer, but this is the prize he wants more than any other. Having learned from multiple UK Trainers’ Champion Martin Pipe, it’s easy to see why it means so much to him.
Mullins won’t give his crown up easily, and while Elliott hasn’t traditionally done well at Punchestown (Nicky Henderson has had more winners than him at the meeting, although he’s been coming here longer) I suspect the team at Elliott’s will have adjusted try to peak their horses for Ireland’s great Jumps finale.
I have immense respect for both men, geniuses in their own right. They want to be Champion Trainer because they strive every day to be the very best. It promises to be an epic conclusion to what has been a fantastic Jumps season, and you can watch every race live on At The Races.
From a betting perspective, here are the ten horses I’ll be backing this week.
Ballyward is highly regarded by his owner and is the clichéd “chaser in making”. However, he comes into the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle on the back of a fine run in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham where he was fourth to KILBRICKEN STORM, who reopposes for the Tizzard team.
An impressive win in a Leopardstown Christmas Bumper in 2016 signalled his potential. Rated 143, he’s a progressive horse who I think is ready to claim his first Grade 1 prize on Wednesday. Whatever the result, he is a horse for the At The Races tracker, as I think he could be a very exciting chaser next season.
As listeners to The Final Furlong Podcast will know, I’ve been a big fan of the Hunter Chaser Burning Ambition all season. I really liked his performance at the Limerick Christmas meeting where he bolted up by 13 lengths, jumping impeccably, especially down the back and he cruised to an easy victory.
He was an easy winner of his four-previous point-to-points and this announced his arrival in some style. He lost little in defeat at this track when second to the classy Gilgamboa – who he may face again at this meeting.
He looked to have the measure of the former Grade 1 winner, but the Grand National fourth rallied under an excellent ride from Nina Carberry. Sent off favourite for the Foxhunter at Cheltenham, he could only manage eighth, but was reported to be suffering from heat exhaustion.
With the assistance of Jamie Codd, who will hopefully be back after he took a fall recently, I think he’ll repay his supporters at Punchestown and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Burning Ambition and The Codd Father in action again.
The betting for the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle (Grade 1) is headed by dual Cheltenham Festival winner Penhill, but it’s his stable companion I’m more interested in. Sporting the iconic Hurricane Fly silks, Coquin Mans has looked a classy stayer in the making.
His Down Royal form with Melon speaks for itself, and he was very impressive last timeout over 2m4f at Fairyhouse, where Paul Townend never had to touch him as he eased to an impressive win. This is even more impressive given he was coming back from an injury sustained at Clonmel in early December when looking set to win over 3m.
I think his ability to race prominently could be a huge advantage on this tight track, and at the current odds he looks a solid each-way bet.
I couldn’t do a betting preview without mentioning a David Pipe-trained handicapper! But in all seriousness, this is a horse I’m very excited about. It’s been a tough season for the Pipe team, but they scored at Aintree with Mr Big Shot and at Ayr with Moon Racer and I think they’ll have another Saturday winner with Daklondike.
This talented young stayer will be running in the 3m5f Chase on Saturday. He mostly travels well in his races and is very tough in a finish. Only six, I think he’ll take all the beating and he could be a Grand National Horse in the making.
It’s not often I’d back a horse on debut, never mind tip one! However, I interviewed Joseph O’Brien on the Matchbook Betting Podcast and you couldn’t help but be impressed by how spoke about Delauro.</p> <P>Bought for £410,000 at the Cheltenham sales in February, on the back of an impressive point-to-point debut success at Belharbour, he’s an exciting horse to have for the O’Brien team. </p> <P>Interestingly, he was acquired by leading Australian owner Lloyd Williams, who would be more associated with flat runners. He sounds like a very exciting prospect and is one to keep onside in Thursday’s bumper. Defeat there would not preclude him from being a classy horse, so make sure you put him in your At The Races Tracker.
Won/5, settled behind leaders, 4th early, mistake 7th, improved into 2nd 6 out, led before next, 6-lengths clear after 3 out, slightly reduced advantage entering straight, asserted again before 2 out, slight mistake last, pushed out run-in, comfortably
It’s not that long ago the thought of getting odds against about Douvan seemed like fairy tale stuff. But horses aren’t machines as we saw in the 2017 Queen Mother Champion Chase, where he could only manage seventh, after picking up a pelvic injury.
He didn’t run again until this season’s Champion Chase, where he drifted alarmingly in the betting before the off. He was traveling sweetly and jumping well when taking a tumble at the open ditch after taking off too soon, giving Patrick Mullins no chance.
It was too far out to know what role he would have played, but he looked to have retained all his ability, and with ground conditions maybe not ideal for Un De Sceaux and Min having had a hard race only 11 days ago at Aintree, connections are making the right noises. I think Douvan will return to his best in day one’s feature race.
Connections have been making some very bullish noises about this filly all season. She was a hugely impressive wide-margin winner on her Irish debut, but her preparation for Cheltenham was far from ideal.
Well backed in the Triumph Hurdle, she couldn’t settle in the early stages, yet she was travelling very well as she approached the turn for home. In the end her keenness took its toll and she came down at the last, when held.
If none the worse for that tumble, I think she – and her connections – will have learned a lot from that experience and it wouldn’t surprise me if she was the number one Mullins runner in the Aes Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle. She’ll be carrying my money, I think she is a very exciting prospect.
The Cheltenham Champion Bumper was dominated by Willie Mullins and the form of the race has already been boosted at Aintree. Clearly, Willies’ horses set the standard, and they could easily have a one-two-three again.
However, at a massive price I’ll take a chance on Gordon Elliott’s Rapid Escape. He was a bitter disappoint behind Blackbow in February, but it was such a poor performance that I feel it can’t have been his running.
Jamie Codd gave this horse a big mention on The Final Furlong Podcast at the start of the season and he didn’t disappoint, winning three bumpers on the bounce for Lisa O’Neill. He was fifth in last year’s Goffs Land Rover Bumper at this meeting, behind some very smart horses.
A £240,000 purchase for Gigginstown, he is held in high regard and at 20/1 I simply must back him.
The winner of the Goffs Land Rover Bumper at Punchestown last year for Robert Tyner, he was quickly snapped up by the Potts for €270,000 and transferred to Colin Tizzard.
While the form of his bumper win is red hot, it’s taken him some time to show his true colours. After three disappointing efforts for his new connections he was given a wind operation, and on his next start he bolted up by 31 lengths in a Listed contest at Exeter.
He was a fine sixth in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and was second last time out at Aintree in a Grade One. He was struggling to keep up there, and did well to get second, but the return to a stiffer track should play to his strengths.
There are question marks over those who head the betting, especially if the odds on favourite Getabird gets taken on for the lead. With his stable in form and at a double figure price, he appeals as a decent each-way bet.
A winner at this meeting last year, Jessica Harrington has an excellent record at the Punchestown Festival, and this gelding, out of the famous Opera Hat, looks to have been laid out for the valuable Guinness Handicap Steeplechase on Wednesday.
With conditions and the trip all in his favour, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a similar gamble to the one that emerged on him last year at this Festival. With Puppy Power doing the steering, he’s going to be a very interesting runner.