The most significant factor at this year’s Punchestown Festival will be the close race between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in the Irish Trainers’ Championship. Both men are desperate to win it: Mullins wants to make it 10 in a row, while Elliott is in his own words “obsessed” with landing the title for the first time having come incredibly close last season. As such, both trainers will enter almost every eligible horse they have in every big-money race on the basis that the more darts you throw, the more chance you have of hitting the bullseye.
The situation in the Trainers’ Championship last year at Punchestown was exactly the same, with both trainers adopting a similar strategy of maximising runners to try to secure the title. So what can we learn by looking at the trainer of the 2017 winners?
Mullins and Elliott certainly dominated the Grade Ones over the five days, winning 67% of the races between them. However, despite being desperate to land every possible prize at the Festival – particularly the lucrative handicaps – they could only land a combined 25% of the other races, with other Irish trainers accounting for 58% and plucky British raiders taking home 17% of the non-Grade One spoils.
Therefore in non-Grade One races, with the media focus entirely on the title fight, there will clearly be value on horses which have been ‘aimed at’ Punchestown by trainers other than Mullins and Elliott, particularly less fashionable Irish trainers.
But in the Grade Ones themselves, the fact remains that the winner is extremely likely to be trained by one of the duo - beware any tipster insisting on opposing their many entries as a rule. Instead, any value in the Grade One markets will lie in finding horses which have been targeted and campaigned with their Punchestown targets in mind. Some of the Mullins/Elliott horses are running because they have a good chance of picking up prize money, rather than because their trainer thinks they have an outstanding chance of winning the race itself. In particular, horses who’ve run at Aintree or Fairyhouse – within the last three weeks – probably wouldn’t be running here if the trainers’ title wasn’t on the line.
In the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (4:20), two contenders have been kept fresh since good performances at Cheltenham. MENGLI KHAN has been aimed at this race by Gordon Elliott after finishing a close-up 3rd in the Supreme behind two outstanding-looking English horses, neither of whom have crossed the Irish Sea, and has every chance. PALOMA BLUE finished fourth in that same race for Henry de Bromhead, and placed 2nd in the Bumper in 2017’s festival.
The Champion Chase (5:30) is dominated by Mullins and Elliott, who have 8 of the ten runners between them. Only the mercurial DOUVAN has been trained with this race in mind, and if he travels as smoothly as he did at Cheltenham before falling, this race is his to lose. In the ‘to place’ markets, value could be provided by Henry de Bromhead’s 11-year-old SPECIAL TIARA, who ran terribly on soft ground at this year’s Cheltenham, but flourishes on better ground and gave Min a brief scare at Leopardstown in February.
Of those in the Growise Champion Novice Chase (6:40), run over 3 miles, both Rathvinden (Mullins) and Jury Duty (Elliott) have been rested since their exertions in the Cheltenham 4-miler, and the pacey JURY DUTY has claims on better ground over a much shorter trip, having beaten subsequent Ryanair winner Shattered Love earlier in the season. But the favourite MONALEE (Henry de Bromhead) has also been kept fresh for Punchestown since his mighty second place in the RSA at Cheltenham and given form and fitness, he is hard to oppose.
Colin Tizzard has by far the best recent record of any English trainer at Punchestown, and his Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm has to be respected in the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle (4:55), especially as he elected to skip Aintree for this assignment. But Willie Mullins has also aimed the classy NEXT DESTINATION here, and the six-year-old’s third behind superstar Samcro and subsequent Aintree winner Black Op in the Ballymore at Cheltenham looks like rock-solid form. He stayed on well over 2m5f on soft ground at Prestbury Park, so the 3 miles on better ground at Punchestown should prove within reach.
Several horses entered in the Gold Cup (5:30) would probably not be running if the Trainers’ Championship was sewn up already. Only Djakadam has been held back for this race, and his second last year to Sizing John is excellent form, but he’s not getting any younger and hasn’t shown his best form this season. As such Noel Meade could spoil the Elliott/Mullins party with ROAD TO RESPECT, who has been off the track since finishing a creditable 4th in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in ground he would have hated, and previously beat Ryanair winner Balko des Flos in the Grade One Christmas Chase.
Thursday, Friday & Saturday
Declarations will continue to be finalised throughout the week, and some horses’ targets are not yet totally clear. One of those is APPLE'S JADE, who has not been raced since her disappointing third in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, and that performance has seen many write her off at the top level. Yet her record after a 50+ day break reads 122213 (both wins in Grade 2 races), compared to her record when fit of 11211111. She has a fantastic chance wherever she runs with the fitness gained from that Cheltenham run.
FOOTPAD looks the banker of the week for Willie Mullins, his 14 length stroll in the Arkle as impressive visually as it was on the clock, and the champion trainer has held him back specifically for Punchestown.
Gordon Elliott has also resisted the temptation to squeeze extra prize-money out of his superstar, SAMCRO, and Elliott may be tempted to run the Ballymore winner in the Champion Hurdle, where in a weak division missing Cheltenham winner Buveur D’Air, he would have every chance.
The media spotlight during the week will remain fixed on the twists and turns in the quest for that all-important Trainers’ Championship – but for bettors, the focus should remain squarely on finding the fit and in-form horse in every race, no matter the trainer.