Donn's Articles » Punchestown


Strange thing that the Punchestown Festival, the Irish National Hunt Festival as we are apt to call it, seems set to take place in the middle of the Flat season this year. Cheltenham heroes have long since been adorned, the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle have been transferred from short-term to long-term memory, and the racing talk is of Cecil and O’Brien, not of Nicholls and Mullins.

Such are the vagaries of the latter stages of the Irish National Hunt racing calendar, governed, as they are, by Easter Monday and the moon. An early May start for Punchestown, three days after the 2000 Guineas has been run, was largely unavoidable this year with Easter pushing the Fairyhouse festival almost as far forward as it can possibly push it. It may mean that the racecourse executive will have to pour an extra couple of gallons of water on the track this week, but it doesn’t mean that some of our top National Hunt horses are not girding their loins, or that the British ships are not en route.

Hurricane Fly v Binocular

The match-up that we were denied at Cheltenham between the best two-mile hurdler in Ireland and the best two-mile hurdler in Britain on his day is set to take place on Friday in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Hurricane Fly was brilliant at Cheltenham 2011. Absent from Cheltenham 2009 and Cheltenham 2010, frustrated by injury, all that was easily forgotten as he cruised up to Peddlers Cross’s withers, engaged him in battle over the last and kept on strongly up the hill (he’s by Montjeu isn’t he?) to post the performance of a champion.

Binocular had to give up his title tamely, himself frustrated this year by a veterinary technicality which meant that he couldn’t race at Cheltenham this year, and things didn’t get any better for JP McManus’s horse in the Aintree Hurdle on Grand National day, when he finished a tame fourth behind Oscar Whisky. He was a beaten horse before the extra half-mile came into play, he just wasn’t the Binocular that we know he can be. However, the fact that Nicky Henderson has persevered with him this season, that fact that he is intent on travelling to Punchestown, tells you that there is every chance the 2010 champ will arrive with his A game. And if he does, get ready for sparks.

Kauto Star v the rest

Kauto Star has never raced before in the Republic of Ireland – he is a lot like The Queen in that way – so the fact that he is set to line up in the Punchestown Guinness Gold Cup is huge. As British sovereigns go, they don’t get much more significant than Kauto Star.

The 11-year-old gelding may have many more races behind him than in front of him, but it is probable that, after his retirement, whenever that may be, he will be remembered as one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time. A 14-time Grade 1 winner, he had the speed to win two Tingle Creek Chases over two miles, the pace to win an unprecedented four King Georges in a row, and the stamina to win two Gold Cups, the first horse ever to wrest the crown back after losing it. He has lit up the staying chasing division like no other horse over the last five years, and it is fantastic that the Irish racing public will get to see him in the flesh.

Nacarat and Kempes and Joncol will keep him honest for sure, but it is not Nacarat or Kempes or Joncol who will pack them in on Wednesday.

Sizing Europe v Big Zeb

The first four home in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham this year – all four trained in Ireland, the only four Irish-trained horses in the race – are set to meet again in the Champion Chase on Tuesday. Old scores to be settled.

Sizing Europe was the winner on merit at Cheltenham. Always in the front rank, he kicked off the home turn and came away up the run-in to post a famous victory.

It is difficult to see how Big Zeb or Captain Cee Bee or Golden Silver will reverse placings with Henry de Bromhead’s horse. We know that Sizing Europe loves Punchestown, he has won four times there, and he will be coming into this week’s festival fresher than most, having been off the track for three months during the depths of winter. However, this is a different meeting, different day.

Absent from Punchestown last year after winning the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, Big Zeb would surely have beaten Master Minded in this race in 2009 had he not tried to take the last fence home with him. He is 10 years old now, he may have lost some of his pace, but he remains one of the best two-mile chasers in training.

Captain Cee Bee is also 10, but he is a lightly-raced 10-year-old, having run just eight times over fences. He was only third at Cheltenham, but he still performed with a lot of credit, and remember that he ran disappointingly at Cheltenham in 2010 before he came on to Punchestown and landed the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase.

Golden Silver was only fourth at Cheltenham, but Cheltenham was never his track. Punchestown is. Winner of this race last year – a performance that proved that he wasn’t a soft-ground-only horse – he has only once been out of the first two in five races over fences at the Kildare venue. And you know that, with W P Mullins in the trainer’s column, he will be primed to run for his life this week.

Willie Mullins v Himself

No, Willie Mullins is not racing against Arkle in a charity 100-metre flat race after racing on Thursday, but he did set a record of 12 winners at the 2009 Punchestown Festival that many – including the trainer himself – said could never be bettered or even equalled. Then, last year, he went and repeated the feat.

He couldn’t possibly beat it this year, could he?

© The Sunday Times, 1st May 2011