Things We Learned » Dust settles on Punchestown

Dust settles on Punchestown

It is taking a while for the dust to settle on this year’s Punchestown Festival.  It was a meeting that had no precedent.  It is a week now since the curtain came down, and still it is proving to be difficult to assimilate everything.

The stats that went with the trainers’ championship were almost incredible.  We know them well by now.  Eighteen winners for Willie Mullins, two more than his previous best.  Over €1.7 million in prize money, more than any other trainer except Gordon Elliott earned in the entire Irish National Hunt season.  Nine of the 12 Grade 1 races.

Both Mullins and Elliott went through the €5 million mark in prize money earned for the season, and they smashed the 200-winner barrier, feats that had never before been achieved by an Irish National Hunt trainer.  Again, no precedent.  In any other era, in any other year, with those figures, Gordon Elliott would have been champion.

We thought we had most of it covered last week when copy was filed on Thursday night, but that was to budget without the page-turning drama that the 2018 Punchestown Festival had become.  We weren’t even half way there.

Katie Walsh rode a winner on Friday and announced her retirement, Nina Carberry rode a winner on Saturday and announced her retirement.  Like a lot of what happened during the week, you couldn’t have scripted this one.  If you had written it as a piece of fiction and handed it to your editor, he would have handed it back to you and said, nah, not credible.

We will miss Katie in the saddle, we will miss Nina in the saddle.  There are not many riders to whom you can refer by first-name only and be certain that everybody understands.

There was emotion and there was camaraderie.  Sisters in arms and in law.  But you know that they are both going out voluntarily, on their own terms, departing on the best stage that you could have imagined, the perfect final act, under the best circumstances.  They are walking out of the weigh room unencumbered, unaided, and they are leaving it in an infinitely better state than the state in which they found it when they first walked into it.

They were brilliant, both as riders and as ambassadors for the sport.  They have been pioneers.  They have pushed through glass ceilings and reached for the stars.   And thankfully, this is retirement in the loosest sense of the word.  Don’t be sending either of them presents of pipes or slippers.

In with the new

The new National Hunt season was due to start at Ballinrobe on Tuesday, but it got under way a day earlier on a fine Monday evening at Kilbeggan, just two days after the old one had ended at Punchestown.

Kilbeggan is not Punchestown, but there is always a feelgood factor about an evening at Kilbeggan, even a re-scheduled one.  And the top people were there.  Sean Flanagan and Noel Meade went to the top of the 2018/19 jockeys’ and trainers’ championship respectively when they teamed up with Heroesandvillains in the opening maiden hurdle.  Flanagan was quickly joined by reigning champion Davy Russell at the top of the jockeys’ list, and Gordon Elliott joined Meade at the top of the trainers’ list, when Crezic kept on well to land the second.

Shark Hanlon, Andrew McNamara and Denis Hogan also had winners, and Gavin Cromwell had two, from just two runners, which took him to the top of the trainers’ list.  The seven winners on the evening were shared among seven jockeys, with Brien Kane, Andrew Lynch, Danny Mullins, Dillon Maxwell and Barry O’Neill joining Flanagan and Russell on one winner for the season. 

On Tuesday at Ballinrobe, Denis Hogan had another winner (as rider as well as trainer), Hugo ‘N Taz, who had finished second at Kilbeggan the previous evening, and Willie Mullins had two.  That left Hogan on top of the trainers’ championship with €17,688 in prize money, followed by Willie Mullins with €14,750 and Gavin Cromwell third with €13,750 and a 100% strike rate, two for two, like Ted Walsh, one for one, and Dermot McLoughlin, also one for one.

The 2018/19 jockeys’ championship is spread thinly for now.  Fourteen races so far, before Cork yesterday evening, 14 different winning riders, although you have to give the lead Denis Hogan, who has ridden a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth as well as a winner.  He just shades it from Mark Walsh, who has ridden a winner, a second, a third, a fourth and an eighth.

Actually, Denis Hogan has had six rides so far this National Hunt season, and he has finished first once, second once, third once, fourth once, fifth once and sixth once.  He is leading the 2018/19 National Hunt trainers’ championship, and he is leading the 2018/19 National Hunt jockeys’ championship.  That may be unprecedented too.

Only 358 days to go now.

RSA Chase form gets stronger still

The form of this year’s RSA Chase continues to get stronger.

The winner Presenting Percy has not run again since, but the second Monalee would surely have gone close to winning the Grade 1 Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown had he not come down at the second last fence.  Henry de Bromhead’s horse had just hit the front and he appeared to be travelling better than any of his rivals when he got the second last fence wrong.

Al Boum Photo would have finished third in the RSA Chase had he not come down at the second last fence.  Willie Mullins’ horse followed up by winning the Grade 1 Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse, and he probably would have won the Growise Chase after Monalee’s departure had the race not taken the bizarre twist that it did take.

The RSA Chase third and fifth, Elegant Escape and Black Corton, were both beaten in the Mildmay Chase at Aintree, as long seasons probably caught up on the two of them.  They were having, respectively, their seventh and 12th runs of the season.

But Ballyoptic, fourth in the RSA Chase, went very close to winning the Scottish National at Ayr two weeks ago off a mark of 149.  And even Allysson Monterg, pulled up in the RSA Chase, ran out an impressive winner of a handicap chase off a mark of 137 at Perth 10 days ago.

It is not surprising that Presenting Percy is at the top of most lists for the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Trends landscape may have changed

Aidan O’Brien has won this afternoon’s 2000 Guineas eight times, more times than any other trainer in the history of the race, and he has won it on each occasion with a colt who was making his seasonal debut. 

That stat points at first glance to Saxon Warrior and Murillo today, and away from Gustav Klimt, but that may be over-simplifying matters.  This year may be a little different to the ones that have gone immediately before. 

Until this year, there wasn’t really an ideal trial for an Irish-trained 2000 Guineas prospect.  You have to travel to England for the Craven Stakes or the Greenham Stakes, and that is not ideal for an adolescent colt.  Not for a trial.  The Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial was run over a mile, usually on easy ground, and that could be a stretch for a three-year-old miler in the middle of April.  The Gladness Stakes is over seven furlongs, but it is against older horses.

It is not just the Ballydoyle Guineas winners who were making their seasonal debuts.  When the Jim Bolger-trained Dawn Approach won the Guineas in 2013, he was making his seasonal debut.  When John Oxx won it with Sea The Stars in 2009, the Cape Cross colt was also making his seasonal debut. 

The Dermot Weld-trained Refuse To Bend is the only Irish-trained 2000 Guineas winner since El Gran Senor to have had a run that season before he won the Newmarket Classic.  Refuse To Bend ran in the Leopardstown Guineas Trial over a mile where, perhaps crucially, the ground was good to firm, not good to soft.

This year, the distance of Leopardstown’s Guineas trial was reduced to seven furlongs, and that may change the landscape from a trends perspective.  Aidan O’Brien said earlier in the year that it is a more appropriate distance for a Guineas trial at that stage of the year on the ground that usually prevails. 

Gustav Klimt needed most of those seven furlongs to get on top of Imaging, but he was impressive in winning in the end, and seven furlongs was a good distance for him.  He shaped as if he would improve for a step up to a mile and, despite the fact that it sets him against the trend of the Ballydoyle Guineas-winning blueprint, the run probably enhanced his chance of winning today.  It is very unlikely that it detracted from it.

Torcedor impressive

Torcedor was impressive in winning the Group 3 Sagaro Stakes at Ascot on Wednesday. 

Under a fine aggressive front-running ride from Colm O’Donoghue, Jessica Harrington’s horse travelled like the most likely winner in front from long before they started to round the home turn, and he powered up the home straight to record an impressive victory, coming five lengths clear of runner-up Time To Study. 

The Fastnet Rock gelding is a talented stayer.  He finished second to top class Order Of St George in the Irish St Leger last September, and he finished second to the same Order Of St George in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot last October, beaten just a half a length.

He made all when he beat Order Of St George in the Vintage Crop Stakes at Navan last April on just his second run for Jessica Harrington, and it may be that he will prove to be a tough nut to crack over staying trips this season if ridden aggressively like this.  He could be a big force in some of the top staying races this summer.

© The Irish Field, 5th May 2018