Donn's Articles » Dramatic Punchestown

Dramatic Punchestown

It was fitting that Katie Walsh announced her retirement from the saddle on the penultimate day of the 2017/18 National Hunt season, on the penultimate day of one of the most dramatic Punchestown Festivals in living memory.

It was here 12 years ago, at the 2006 Punchestown Festival, that the amateur rider landed one of the first big wins of her career when she booted the Willie Mullins-trained Glencove Marina to victory in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper.  And it was here two years ago to the day, at the 2016 Punchestown Festival, that she bagged the first Grade 1 victory over her career when she landed the Champion Bumper on Blow By Blow. 

On Friday evening, Katie Walsh drove the Willie Mullins-trained Antey home in the two-mile novice hurdle, then promptly announced her retirement.

“I wanted to go out on a winner,” she said.  “I said to myself that I would retire when I rode my next winner.  It’s just the way it’s worked out.  I couldn’t get a better place than Punchestown to go out, with my family and (my husband) Ross present.  And to ride it for Willie makes it extra special.”

Antey needed every ounce of encouragement that his rider could give him too.  No better than 11th as they ran to the home turn, he started to respond to his rider’s urgings as they rounded the bend.  Fourth on the run to the final flight, Katie conjured a run from Susannah Ricci’s horse that took him between horses to nut Shady Operator on the line.

It was a dramatic conclusion to a sparkling career in the saddle.  It is a career that includes three Cheltenham Festival winners, a Punchestown Champion Bumper, a Kerry National, a Prix La Barka, a third-place finish on Seabass in the 2012 Aintree Grand National, and victory on Thunder And Roses in the 2015 Irish Grand National. 

And it was only a part of the drama at Punchestown this week. 

We expected drama all right, but not on this scale.  It all started on Tuesday as we expected it would, the narrative directed by the battle for the trainers’ championship: Gordon Elliott €521,413 ahead, Willie Mullins clawing it back.  Mullins won the first Grade 1 race of the week too, the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, although it was with the 25/1 shot Draconien, not with the 11/10 favourite Getabird, and we settled in for the journey.

Mullins had the 1-2 in the BoyleSports Champion Chase just over an hour later, Un De Sceaux was brilliant from the front under a superb attacking ride from Patrick Mullins.  His better-fancied stable companion Douvan couldn’t catch him, but he claimed €52,250 for finishing second and the gap in the trainer’s championship narrowed to €226,714. 

Then they lined up for the third Grade 1 race of the day and of the week, the Growise Champion Novice Chase.

Monalee’s fall was at the second last fence was only the start of the drama.  Al Boum Photo appeared to be a likely winner after Monalee’s departure but on the approach to the final fence, rider Paul Townend suddenly moved his horse to his right in an attempt to by-pass the obstacle.  He took Robbie Power and Finian’s Oscar with him, they both crashed out, and that opened the door for Davy Russell to drive The Storyteller to victory, leading home a Gordon Elliott 1-2-3.

Paul Townend made a mistake.  We all make mistakes.  It’s a human thing.  Even jockeys err.  He heard something, he saw something that convinced him that he was required to by-pass the final obstacle, so he acted accordingly.  The rider had to make a decision in a split second as he hurtled on a half a ton of thoroughbred at over 30 miles an hour towards an obstacle, and he made the wrong decision.  We all make wrong decisions, even when we have far longer than a split second in which to make them.

It was a costly mistake for Al Boum Photo’s connections and for people who backed the horse, but it was just a mistake.  Nobody was more distraught afterwards than Townend himself.  Thankfully and importantly, all horses and riders involved in the incident emerged unscathed.  And it is a measure of the rider that Paul Townend is that he was able to return to the fray the following day and ride a treble.  The reception that he received when he was led back into the winner’s enclosure on Pravalaguna after the second race on Wednesday was one of the warmest of the week.

The stewards made a mistake too in not publishing Townend’s explanation immediately after he had given it.  There was a hunger for information and it was not immediately sated.  That led to unnecessary conjecture, lots of it inaccurate.  An information vacuum does not remain a vacuum for long. 

The drama continued on Wednesday.  Incredibly, Willie Mullins saddled six of the seven winners on the day, including the winners of all three Grade 1 races.  Having started the day €405,839 behind Gordon Elliot, he finished it €48,161 in front.

Faugheen was brilliant in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle over three miles on Thursday.  He did win his only point-to-point and he won a Grade 3 novice hurdle over three miles at Limerick in 2013, but it is as a fast two-mile hurdler that we know him.  Ruby Walsh said after he rode him to finish sixth in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month that he rode like he might appreciate a step up in trip.  He sure did.

David Mullins kicked Faugheen out of the gate, he led from the moment the tape went up, he quickly had his horse into a lovely racing rhythm in front, and he didn’t see a rival until he pulled up after crossing the winning line.

Footpad was foot-perfect again in the Ryanair Novice Chase, completing a Grade 1 double for Willie Mullins on the day.  By the close of play on Thursday then, the defending champ was €424,148 clear of the pretender.

Any hope that Gordon Elliott had of wresting the title from Mullins rested on the broad shoulders of Samcro, who lined up in the Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle on Friday. 

It was a bold move by Gordon Elliott and by owners Gigginstown House Stud, to play their Ace, still a novice, in the Champion Hurdle.  Samcro would have been long odds-on for any of the novice races that he could have contested.  But it was a move that made sense.  There was over a hundred thousand euro more for the winner of the Champion Hurdle than there was for the winner of any of the novice races, and Samcro deserves his place in any line-up. 

The Germany gelding was still sent off at a shade of odds-on for Friday’s contest, and all appeared to be going smoothly, he was travelling well for Jack Kennedy on the run to the third last flight.  But there would be no IFTA nomination for Punchestown if he had sailed home effortlessly from there.

Samcro was unlucky to fall.  He jumped the third last flight well, he just seemed to lose his footing on the landing side.  His main rival Melon fell at the same obstacle, but his was a more conventional hurdles fall.  Melon picked up at the obstacle after Samcro, but he was on the floor before him.

Their dramatic independent exits left the way clear for Jessica Harrington’s evergreen Supasundae to add the Punchestown Champion Hurdle to his Irish Champion Hurdle victory in February.  And Willie Mullins’ lead in the trainers’ championship was unassailable.

There was more drama in the Profile Systems Champion Novice Hurdle on Friday, when Debuchet fell in front at the second last flight and scuttled the chances of both Scarpeta and Getabird, which opened the way for the Gordon Elliott-trained Dortmund Park to run out a comfortable winner.

And just when you thought that the dramatic conclusion had happened, Katie Walsh goes and announces her retirement. 

You couldn’t have written a drama like this one.

© The Sunday Times, 29th April 2018