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Punchestown review

So that was Punchestown week in all its finery, a week that was replete with stories and incidents, and during which the sun shone and the accolades were earned.

Man of the week

Willie Mullins, hotly pursued by teenager of the week Paul Townend. It is difficult to believe that it is just over a week since the champion trainer sat at his kitchen table in Closutton in County Carlow and laughed at the very suggestion that he could equal last year’s tally of 12 winners. No chance, he said. Included in last year’s dozen were four Grade 1 winners. This year, he saddled 12 winners, including five in Grade 1 races. He had the first and second in the Champion Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday, the first and third in the Champion Novices’ Chase, the first and third in the World Series Hurdle on Thursday and the first and third again in the Champion Hurdle on Friday.

It was a remarkable achievement. For in-depth quality National Hunt racing, the Punchestown Festival is unmatched in Ireland. It is the Irish Cheltenham, insofar as there is an Irish Cheltenham. For one trainer to dominate the Punchestown Festival, to have such a stranglehold on the best races at the meeting, and to do it for the second year in succession, is truly extraordinary.

Of course Mullins has the raw material, but he also had to have his team trained to the minute for this meeting, which is a fair feat when you consider the season he has had, champion trainer again, 146 winners, obliterating last season’s total of 136 and almost twice as many as he had just three years ago.

On top of that, his choice of races for his horses last week was exemplary. He thought long and hard before he sent Quevega for the World Series Hurdle instead of the Champion Hurdle, and she ran out an impressive winner. Now we know she stays three miles. He ran Kempes in the three-mile novices’ chase instead of the two-mile event, and he stayed the trip, just like the trainer suspected he would. He ran Arvika Ligeonniere in the novices’ hurdle on Friday instead of in one of the Grade 1 contests, and he won with his head in his chest and, while he knew from a long way out that Cheltenham would come too soon for stable star Hurricane Fly, he always thought that he could have him back fit enough to win the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown. He did.

Lady of the week

A tie between Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry. Again. Not content with dominating the Cheltenham Festival coverage when they fought out the finish of the four-mile chase on Poker De Sivola and Becauseicouldntsee respectively, they were at it again in the very first race of the meeting on Tuesday, the Sean Breen Memorial Chase, somewhat appropriately, for the Ladies Cup.

This time, it was Nina who came out on top on the Enda Bolger-trained Zest For Life, exacting her revenge on Katie who rode her father Ted’s Wedger Pardy and who didn’t go down without a massive fight. Katie did reach the winner’s enclosure on Thursday, however, on Battlefront, who surprised her father and her brother by winning the two-mile handicap chase by eight lengths, and they were both among the winners yesterday on Freneys Well and Dorset Square respecively. And if you needed further proof that Katie Walsh isn’t just a highly talented lady rider, but is simply a highly talented jockey, you had it in the ride that she gave 20/1 shot Thousand Stars to finish third behind Hurricane Fly and Solwhit in the Champion Hurdle on Friday.

Horse of the week

This was a hotly-contested category. It could have been Hurricane Fly or Quevega or L’Ami or Captain Cee Bee, but it would have been an injustice if the gong hadn’t gone to War Of Attrition. It would have been far too much to expect Michael O’Leary’s Gold Cup winner to win his last ever competitive race, but to finish second in one of the top staying chases on the calendar was almost as good. Okay, so it probably wasn’t the best renewal of the Punchestown Gold Cup ever run, and if AP McCoy’s right arm wasn’t as strong as it is, he and Denman would have ended up on the Dublin Road instead of the back straight, but it was still a huge performance by the 11-year-old War Of Attrition and Davy Russell, and by Mouse Morris to have the horse as well as he obviously had him on the day.

It is six years since War Of Attrition just gave best to Brave Inca in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, it is four years since he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and it is three years since he suffered a career-threatening injury. Michael O’Leary said that the day War Of Attrition won the Cheltenham Gold Cup was one of the best days of his life and, as part repayment, a lush green field has been set aside for the son of Presenting at Gigginstown House, in which he can live out the remainder of his days in peace.

Most under-rated winner

Planet Of Sound, winner of the Punchestown Gold Cup, partly because of all the attention that was heaped upon War Of Attrition and Denman post-race, partly because Philip Hobbs’s horse went into the race on the back of a disappointing run in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. However, he was by far the best horse in the race on the day.

Planet Of Sound’s jumping has let him down on occasion this season, but he jumped fluently here, with the exception of the second fence down the far side, when Richard Johnson expected him to go in short and the horse took off out of his hands. For a horse who had never been beyond two and a half miles before in his life, he was in front very early on in this three-mile race, from early in the back straight. But he always travelled well, he kicked on between the last two fences and he came right away on the run-in, pricking his ears and giving the impression that he had plenty more left to give if more had been required.

The application of a tongue-tie obviously helped, but the son of Kayf Tara stayed this extended three-mile trip well, and that opens up a new vista of options for him for next season. Hobbs was talking about the King George as his mid-season target afterwards, and that makes a lot of sense.

Most glaring absence

Master Minded from the racecourse and Ruby Walsh from the saddle, although the rider’s absence was commuted somewhat by his presence on television screens all over the country. It had to have been tough for the champion jockey, watching from the sidelines and applauding as the Mullins winners rolled in behind him, but there was never a hint of regret or envy in his voice. Delighted for Paul, delighted for Davy, delighted for Willie, and it was notable that Paul Townend was as effusive as a 19-year-old can be in his gratitude to Ruby for his words of advice and encouragement.

There is a strong precedent for successful jockeys turned successful media analysts, from Lord Oaksey and Jimmy Lindley and Brough Scott all the way through to present day commentators John Francome and Mick Fitzgerald and, of course, Ruby’s father Ted, and there is no doubt that, when the time comes for Ruby to exit the weigh room for the final time, there is a spot for him in front of a camera if he wants it. Not yet though. He and Master Minded should be back soon.

© The Sunday Times, 25th April 2010