Donn's Articles » Five clashes at the Punchestown Festival

Five clashes at the Punchestown Festival 

The curtain will come down on the 2023/24 Irish National Hunt season at the end of the Punchestown Festival, which runs from Tuesday to Saturday this week.  Here are five clashes to watch out for during the week. 

1.    Galopin Des Champs v Fastorslow (Punchestown Gold Cup, Wednesday)

These two are old rivals now.  When they met for the first time in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown in December 2022, it was Galopin Des Champs who came out on top.  And Willie Mullins’ horse was an impressive winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup again last month, a race in which Fastorslow unseated his rider before the race really got going.

Galopin Des Champs is a huge talent, the Cheltenham Gold Cup title-holder, only the second horse to win back-to-back Gold Cups since Best Mate, and only the third since L’Escargot.  And he is brilliant for racing.  But Fastorslow beat him in this race last year, and he beat him again in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown last November.

It was a real shame that Fastorslow departed the Cheltenham race before it had begun in earnest, but he was travelling really well at the time and, in the context of Punchestown, his early departure is a positive.  It means that he was spared a hard race, and that he should go to Punchestown a relatively fresh horse.  Martin Brassil’s horse goes really well at Punchestown too.

The market suggests that Galopin Des Champs will come out on top again, but the market has under-rated Fastorslow in the past, and it may be that it has done so again. 

2.    Captain Guinness v Dinoblue (Champion Chase, Tuesday)

Captain Guinness bagged the Grade 1 victory that he had been threatening to bag for years when he landed the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.  Of course, his path to victory was eased by El Fabiolo’s departure at the fifth fence, but he was brave after that, he took over from Edwardstone early in the home straight, and he had enough in reserve to see off the late challenge of Gentleman De Mee.

Henry de Bromhead’s horse will probably face into a re-match with Gentleman De Mee in the William Hill Champion Chase on Tuesday, but he may face a more potent threat from Dinoblue who, like Gentleman De Mee, is owned by JP McManus and trained by Willie Mullins.

Winner of the Grade 1 Paddys Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, when she beat Gentleman De Mee well, the Doctor Dino mare ran a big race to finish a close-up second behind Limerick Lace in the Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.  There shouldn’t be much between this pair – Captain Guinness is rated 6lb superior to Dinoblue, but he has to concede the 7lb mares’ allowance to her.

3.    Monty’s Star v Spillane’s Tower (Champion Novice Chase, Tuesday)

There shouldn’t be much between this pair either in the Dooley Insurance Champion Novice Chase on Tuesday.  They are both officially rated 150 and they meet on level terms.  But both have the potential to go well beyond their respective official ratings in time.

Monty’s Star ran a massive race in the Brown Advisory Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last month, staying on well for Rachael Blackmore to finish second to Fact To File.  That was just his third run over fences and, a half-brother to Monalee, he has the potential to progress next season and take a high rank among the top staying chasers.  In the more immediate term, he goes well at Punchestown, he is one for one there, he was impressive in winning his beginners’ chase there in November, and he should go well again on Tuesday.

Spillane’s Tower should also go well.  Jimmy Mangan’s horse didn’t go to Cheltenham, he went to Fairyhouse instead four weeks ago and he stayed on well to win the Grade 1 WillowWarm Gold Cup, a race that his trainer had won in 2008 with Conna Castle.

The Walk In The Park gelding has shaped like a classy horse for a little while now, and he could improve again for a step up in trip.  Hopefully sufficient rain will fall on Punchestown between now and then for connections to allow him take his chance, because, if he does, this could be a cracking contest.

4.    Kargese v Bottler’secret (Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle, Saturday)

Kargese has proven that she is one of the best juvenile hurdlers of the 2023/24 season.  Second in the Grade 2 Mercedes Benz Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival on her first run in Ireland, Willie Mullins’ mare stepped forward from that to win the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, and she ran a big race in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham to finish second to Majborough.  And she was good at Aintree last time too in finishing second to Sir Gino.

Bottler’secret’s has a contrasting profile.  Gavin Cromwell’s horse hasn’t been to Leopardstown or Cheltenham or Aintree.  Instead, winner of a three-year-olds’ handicap on the flat at Naas in October on his final run for Ciaran Murphy, he looked good in winning a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle at Naas in February on his hurdling bow, and he looked even better in winning the Grade 2 juveniles’ hurdle at the Easter meeting at Fairyhouse.  He is a really exciting recruit to hurdles and, while Sir Gino would be a massive addition to this race if Nicky Henderson does decide to allow him take his chance, Bottler’secret could take another step forward on Saturday. 

5.    Paul Townend v Jack Kennedy (Jockeys’ Championship)

Jack Kennedy rode another winner at Downpatrick on Friday, the last day of National Hunt racing in Ireland before the Punchestown Festival.  That took his total for the season to 122, seven ahead of Paul Townend’s 155 as we move into the final week of the championship.

It might be enough, but it might not be.  At last year’s Punchestown Festival, Paul Townend rode 11 winners, with Jack Kennedy on the sidelines through injury.  At the 2022 Punchestown Festival, the reigning Paul Townend rode nine winners while challenger Jack Kennedy rode two.  A similar scenario this week would see the championship tied, and that is not beyond the bounds of possibility either.  Both riders have had stellar seasons, and it’s going to be fascinating to monitor the ebbs and flows of the battle for the jockeys’ championship all the way through the week.

© The Sunday Times, 28th April 2024