The 2016 Punchestown Festival promises to be one of the most exciting ever
John Doyle previews what is sure to be four days of spectacular racing
The standard formula of Willie Mullins easing off on his horses after the Cheltenham Festival and getting them back at concert pitch for Punchestown has gone out the window this season.
Mullins went after the Aintree prizes in his bid to become British Champion National Hunt trainer and, with that process going right to the wire, the Mullins team have targeted the bigger prizes in Britain. Thus leaving his team of stars weaker for the usual assault on the Punchestown prizes.
This means it should create more opportunity for others to snaffle the bigger grade races over the week. The highlight of the week is undoubtedly the Gold Cup. Gordon Elliott has kept Don Cossack back for this race, in typical Mullins fashion. His performance in winning the Gold Cup was super impressive with the positive ride from Bryan Cooper adding very much to the effort.
Cue Card suffered a bad fall when looking a danger at the third last fence in the Gold Cup and has since redeemed himself with an authoritive victory at the Aintree Festival.
The Mullins team have a number of options but the evidence suggests they are not good enough to trouble the big two. On balance, Don Cossack is much better in the spring and with the extra recovery time to fall back on, will be very hard to beat the Ryanair Novice could open up into a great race if Douvan were to be absent from the contest because of his exertions in chasing the British title for his trainer.
Douvan has been the undoubted star of the 2 mile novice division but after him, it is a very competitive landscape. Vaniteux, for the Nicky Henderson team, looked to be the one horse that would give Douvan a race at Cheltenham before a bad mistake at the 2nd last left him out of the race. Given plenty of time to recover, he should be spot on for the race.
Sizing John has run consistently well at the top level without looking like winning but his consistency alone deserves reward. Kerry Lee has campaigned Kylemore Lough well and he also deserves his chance at this level. In the Stayers Hurdle, Punchestown will be another chance to see, the very impressive Thistlecrack strut his stuff. In any division this year, this has been the most dominant individual and he proved at Aintree that he is very versatile, setting out to make his own running and coming home an even more impressive winner than his races earlier in the season. Alpha Des Obeaux is a clear second best in this division and this Chaser in the making will be close to the top of that tree next season.
For the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power is the standout performer towards the back end of the season. Bearing in mind she was only substituted into the division following the unfortunate injury to Faugheen, Annie Power has been a ready winner of all three starts since her reappearance in late February. With her record at Punchestown so good, it is very difficult to make a case for any of the other contenders to beat her but you would still expect My Tent or Yours to be the one to chase her home.
For the Mares Champion Hurdle, the Mullins team have a strong hand and with Vroum Vroum Mag helping chase the British title, it looks like it will be left to Limini to fly the flag here. Touted as the Mullins banker for the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, Limini did not disappoint as she travelled easily and scampered away after the last to win impressively.
Brought to Aintree to run in an open Novice, the race didn’t go to plan and she was well beaten. Back against Mares and with the opposition less taxing, she would be hard to beat here.
The Champion 4-year old Hurdle is another exciting race for the week. Apples Jade improved greatly for the run behind Ivanovich Gorbatov in the Triumph at Cheltenham to run out a wide margin winner at Aintree.
That day, Ivanovich Gorbatov was unsuited by the rain softened ground. So on a surface that will suit him much better, the race at Punchestown should see them much closer together. Nonetheless, the power and pace shown by Apples Jade at Aintree was incredible to watch and if she continues to improve, she will be hard to beat again.
The Punchestown Festival 2016 is another great advert for Irish racing and the change in approach for the Mullins team should create more opportunities for the other teams to step in and take some of the bigger prizes home.
|At last year’s Punchestown Festival, Mullins won an incredible 16 of the 37 races (43.2%) and looks set to be well-represented throughout this year’s five-day meeting, running from Tuesday, April 26 to Saturday, April 30. While Mullins is (something to do with what happened at Sandown), one thing is for certain; he has his eyes set on being leading trainer once again next week, something he has achieved at 13 of the last 15 Punchestown Festivals|