Punchestown Festival Preview: Looking ahead to the Irish curtain-closer & reflecting on the British season
The UK jumps racing season wrapped up in sensational style at Sandown on Saturday as Altior set a world record for the number of consecutive victories over obstacles. His 19th win in a row was achieved in classic Altior style: the imperious, almost arrogant, jumping around the UK’s most challenging chase circuit; the flat spot between three and two out which gave his rivals hope; and then the inevitable, relentless surge once he’d popped over the last to ensure victory. Next season he will attempt to embellish his already stunning CV by stepping up in trip, with a tilt at Kempton’s King George on Boxing Day on the agenda. That promises to be an unmissable race, perhaps even the race of the decade.
That’s not hyperbole, because Altior will be taking on a particularly strong array of talent in the three-mile chasing division next season. The recent RSA Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham was a race for the ages in itself, with a titanic tussle up the hill between Topofthegame, Santini and Delta Work. But since then, Lostintranslation thrashed his rivals at Aintree, and Talkischeap hacked up against a strong field at Sandown. Meanwhile, Cyrname is officially the highest-rated horse in training, and 2018 King George winner Clan Des Obeaux is young enough to improve again next year. Any race including this much talent is a mouth-watering prospect.
The other out-and-out star of the season was undoubtedly Tiger Roll, who became the first horse since Red Rum to win back-to-back Grand Nationals. In doing so, he made himself a household name, and the 2019-20 season will revolve around whether this mighty champion does indeed come back to attempt a third consecutive win at Aintree, or whether his owner Michael O’Leary decides the risks of running him again are too great. Either way, all eyes will be on the Tiger next term.
While the UK season is now over, the action in Ireland is just building to its traditional climax, the Punchestown Festival. This five-day extravaganza boasts eleven Grade 1s and a host of highly-competitive handicaps, making it a fitting finale to the year’s jumps racing.
If previous Punchestown Festivals have taught us anything, it’s not to be afraid of taking on short-priced favourites. Last year for example, five of the 11 Grade 1 winners returned at 10/1 or longer. It’s been a long season, and some horses just don’t need another race, no matter how talented they are. The challenge, as ever, is to pick the right favourites to lay.
The Grade 1s kick off with the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, where the winner of the Supreme at Cheltenham, Klassical Dream, will look to build on that impressive victory by beating a field including the first and second-placed horses at the Aintree equivalent, Felix Desjy and Aramon. It should be a cracking contest, and as such the favourite looks a little too short in the market at present.
Un De Sceaux will attempt to defend his crown in the Champion Chase. As an 11-year-old his very best days might be behind him, but the fire was still burning bright during his brave attempt to make all against Altior in December’s Tingle Creek, and it would be brave to bet against him putting up another bold showing. Min is probably the most talented horse in the field, but will have to prove that his exertions at both Cheltenham and Aintree haven’t taken too much out of him, while Hell’s Kitchen represents an intriguing and overpriced outsider for Harry Fry given his outstanding form on right-handed tracks.
The aforementioned Delta Work will be a rightly warm favourite for the Dooley Group Champion Novice Chase, as his third place in that strong RSA is superb form. He takes on another notable Cheltenham performer, the facile winner of the Close Brothers Handicap A Plus Tard, but at the prices Gordon Elliott’s horse is preferred, especially given that Winter Escape got the better of Henry De Bromhead’s five-year-old at Punchestown in January.
Day two’s highlight is the Punchestown Gold Cup, which includes the Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo. His biggest challenger will be stablemate Kemboy, who departed the Cheltenham contest at the first fence, but bounced back in striking style by demolishing a good field in the Grade 1 Betway Bowl at Aintree. As the fresher of the two, Al Boum Photo is preferred, but neither The Storyteller nor Bellshill can be discounted given their wins at similarly long prices at Punchestown this time last year in a tricky race to call.
The 1-2-3 in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham re-oppose one another in the Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle. Minella Indo, Commander Of Fleet and Allaho are rightly the top three in the betting, but the field includes several interesting outsiders, such as Carefully Selected and Defi Bleu. The former brings strong Punchestown form to the table, while the latter ran a terrific race at Cheltenham and looks very progressive. From a betting perspective, it might be the biggest challenge of the whole week.
With declarations yet to be finalised, care needs to be taken before taking prices for races during the last three days of the festival at this stage.
The destinations of the three most talented mares in training will be a key factor. Willie Mullins has stated that his preference is to run Laurina in the Champion Stayers Hurdle, and that seems a sensible strategy. She ran well in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, but was totally outpaced over just two miles, and stepping up to three miles should see her in a better light. Given that the star of the division Paisley Park will not be travelling to Punchestown, she would be a justified favourite in an otherwise fairly weak field, with Bapaume her main challenger.
That means Apple’s Jade may take on Benie Des Dieux in the race named after another mighty mare, the Annie Power Mares’ Champion Hurdle. Apple’s Jade is the equine definition of idiosyncratic: she spent the autumn and winter destroying fields in open Grade 1s, and then flopped when a short favourite at both Cheltenham and Aintree. It would take a bold gambler to back her again, especially considering she was beaten when an odds-on favourite in this race last year. Benie Des Dieux is much more dependable, and last year’s winner is fancied to defend her crown despite her horrible last-fence fall at Cheltenham.
If all three mares do swerve the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, then last year’s winner Supasundae will be strongly backed again, especially given his defeat of Buveur d’Air at Aintree. However, that win came on soft ground at longer trip, and as such Nicky Henderson’s two-time Cheltenham champion could reverse the placings with a clean round of jumping, something that has suddenly become a problem for this previously superb hurdler. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the versatile 10-year-old Wicklow Brave ran another brave race around his favourite track, if Mullins declares him of course.
Finally, Mullins and Elliott no doubt have a battalion of well-treated horses to unleash in the big-money handicaps. Significant attention should be paid to any declared horses who’ve previously shown talent yet deliberately swerved Cheltenham, an obvious example being Saglawy for Mullins. No doubt there will be plenty more across the five days.
Alastair Akers, 29/04/2019