Things We Learned » Ebbs and flows

Ebbs and flows

The trainers’ championship ebbed and flowed during the week, but it ebbed and flowed for just two days really, not five.

Given that Gordon Elliott had a lead of over €520,000 going into the Punchestown Festival, and given that Willie Mullins’ relative strength appeared to be front-loaded, you thought that it was important that the defending champion got off to a good start in order that the sense of competition be maintained.  And he did.  Draconien won the Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, and Un De Sceaux and Douvan finished first and second in the Grade 1 BoyleSports Champion Chase.

By the end of the fourth race, Elliott’s lead was down to €226,714 (exact figures supplied by HRI’s WhatsApp media service, fair play) and you were thinking that Mullins might hit the front too soon.

Then Elliott had the 1-2-3 in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, and the lead was back up to €316,714.  Then Elliott had the 1-2-3 in that eventful Grade 1 Growise Novice Chase, and the gap was increased again to €404,714.

By the end of Day 1, Elliott’s lead stood at €405,839, and he was odds-on again.

What followed on Day 2 was extraordinary.  It was a masterclass by Willie Mullins, a show of unusual strength.  He didn’t win the first race, but he won the next six, including the three Grade 1 contests on the day.  He had the 1-2 in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup, the 1-3 in the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle, and the 1-2-3 in the Racing Post Champion Bumper.  It was like Day 3 at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival multiplied by something.

The six winners were ridden by four different riders and represented six different owners.

By the end of Day 2, Mullins had clawed back Elliott’s lead and gone €48,161 ahead.  Most of the bookmakers said 1/10 Mullins and the rest of them paid out.  By the end of Day 3, with three winners to Elliott’s one on that day, including the invention of a new machine, Faugheen the stayer, who led home a 1-2-3 in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle, and Footpad’s foot-perfectness, Mullins was €424,148 ahead. 

Then we went to press.

Huge performance by Elliott

In order to have a great duel, you need two protagonists, and Gordon Elliott has obviously had a phenomenal season.  It is only two years ago that Willie Mullins’ position at the top of the trainers’ list looked assured for as far into the future as we could envisage.  Then Elliott made the quantum leap from young pretender to genuine title challenger. 

For the last two seasons now, Gordon Elliott has led the Irish National Hunt trainers’ championship going into the final week of the year.  He couldn’t withstand the champion’s Punchestown surge last year, but the fact that he has been able to get so close is massive.  And that’s just in Ireland.

Remember that Elliott trained the winners of eight races at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, including the Ballymore Hurdle, the JLT Chase and the Triumph Hurdle.  He has had 12 Grade 1 wins this season, including on that memorable day at Fairyhouse in December when he had three.  He has been leading trainer at Cheltenham now for the last two years.  Add all of that to his Grand National double, General Principle in the Irish Grand National, Tiger Roll in the Aintree Grand National. 

Elliott will be disappointed this morning, that’s for sure, that the title appears to have moved out of his reach.  He hasn’t tried to hide the magnitude of his desire to be champion.  Even so, he and his team can look back with pride on a remarkable season.

Even jockeys are human 

It was a mistake.  People make them.  We’re all human.  Even jockeys are human.

Watching the race live, your instant reaction was one of bewilderment.  You weren’t really sure what happened.  Then you watched it again on the screen, slow motion and all.  You saw Paul Townend look to his right, then make a sharp manoeuvre in that direction, his obvious intention to go to the right of the rail that led into the final fence.  Your immediate hypothesis was that, for some reason, he was trying to by-pass the final fence.

People asked what happened.  You said that he must have thought that he had to by-pass the final fence.  For some reason.  Maybe he saw something, maybe he heard something.  Something must have convinced him that he had to by-pass the obstacle.  A half an hour later, what happened?  Same conclusion.  He was trying to by-pass the fence.

That’s what it was, a mistake.  It was a costly mistake for connections of Al Boum Photo and for the people who backed him, but it was just a mistake.  You are travelling at over 30 miles per hour, an obstacle is looming.  Suddenly the landscape changes and you have to make a decision in a split second.  Paul Townend made the incorrect decision.  We all make incorrect decisions, even when we have more time than a split second in which to make them.

It is a measure of the rider that Paul Townend is that he came out the following day in the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle, the second race on Wednesday, and gave Pravalaguna the ride of a man who was not short of confidence to win well.  And the warmth of the reception that he received when he came back into the winner’s enclosure was a measure to the crowd that the Punchestown crowd is. 

Then he rode Next Destination to win the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle.  Then he rode Patricks Park to win the Guinness Handicap Chase.

Good week for Fahy

It was a good week for Pat Fahy.  He won the four-year-olds’ bumper on Tuesday with newcomer Kalum River, who stayed on strongly for Patrick Mullins despite running green to get up and lead close home.  There should be more to come from the Fame And Glory gelding.

Fahy also won the bumper on Thursday with Dunvegan, who was given a fine ride by the trainer’s son Conor.  The young rider had his horse handy from early up on the outside of Voix Des Tiep, who set a sedate-looking pace.  He sat still as they moved into the home straight, he didn’t ask his horse for his effort until they were running to the furlong pole.  And when he kicked, Dunvegan picked up nicely. 

It was a fine run by the Le Havre gelding, who finished second to Pallasator in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown last month on his only run to date over hurdles.  He should make up into a nice novice hurdler next season.

Castlegrace Paddy may have been beaten in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase, he probably just paid the price for trying to lie up close to Footpad.  But this was just his third chase, and he remains an exciting prospect.  And Fahy had other horses run well during the week: Call A Cab in the handicap hurdle on Thursday, Awayinthewest in the listed mares’ novice’s hurdle also on Thursday.  He obviously has his horses in top form.

Quiz time

Match the race titles with the distances.

  1. Profile Systems Champion Novice Hurdle
  2. Herald Champion Novice Hurdle
  3. Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle
  4. BoyleSports Champion Chase
  5. Growise Champion Novice Chase
  6. Champion Sports Champion Novice Hurdle

a. Two miles
b. Two miles and half a furlong
c. Two and a half miles
d. Three miles
e. Three miles and half a furlong
f. There is no such race at Punchestown (not yet anyway)


Answers: 1c, 2b, 3d, 4a, 5e, 6f

© The Irish Field, 28th April 2018