Heavy hitters set for Punchestown Festival
Undeterred by the blanket ban on flights, British trainers have assembled another determined challenge for the lion's share of a 2.1m euro prize-fund on offer over the next five days at the Punchestown Festival.
Dominant figures Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, whose horses have plundered some of the plum prizes in recent seasons at the historic Kildare venue, are determined to be on hand for this afternoon's opening session to watch Twist Magic and General Miller in Grade One action.
Yorkshire-based colleague Ferdy Murphy, no stranger either to big-race success at Punchestown, was taking the ferry to Larne last night after Hexham races in the hope of Kalahari King's luck changing in today's Boylesports.com Champion Chase, having won over hurdles on the same track two years ago.
The first batch of 10 raiders from our neighbouring island indeed arrived at the track on Sunday evening as the day's watering activities were in full swing in a bid to ensure a uniform surface for the entire meeting.
The taps were on again yesterday; however, racing manager Richie Galway reported that the course was not drying out as much as it had in the past week.
“It has been more manageable to keep the going safe than in previous years and I'm putting that down to the higher water table we've had. Only a fortnight ago, the course was waterlogged,” he explained.
The one certainty is that the ground will ride faster during this final week of the season for the home team than they've experienced on our tracks for many months and some only sampled at Cheltenham and Aintree.
Whether participation at the latter of those major English fixtures will have taken a toll is anyone's guess, though some clues may emerge this evening after General Miller has contested the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle and Forpadydeplasterer, Kalahari King and Scotsirish tackle the Champion Chase.
Three of the 11 Grade One races are down for decision initially and the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity in those events, with only the Growise Champion Novice Chase a purely domestic affair.
Willie Mullins reaped a bountiful harvest of an amazing dozen winners here a year ago, thanks in no small measure to the assistance of local hero Ruby Walsh, and in the multiple champion jockey's enforced absence through injury, the stable may now have to settle for more modest rewards.
Walsh's understudy Paul Townend thus moves firmly into the spotlight, backed up by David Casey and Emmet Mullins plus Patrick Mullins and Katie Walsh as the yard's Cheltenham winners Quevega and Thousand Stars resume.
Official ratings suggest the finish in the 6.05 Boylesports.com Champion Chase could be dominated here by Tingle Creek Chase principals Twist Magic, off a mark of 172, and Forpadydeplasterer (165) in the absence of Big Zeb.
However, the former suffered yet another Cotswolds blowout as the latter and Kalahari King filled the minor places that day before travelling on to Aintree.
Second money behind Albertas Run represented another sterling performance by Forpadydeplasterer after Kalahari King crashed out early, and Scotsirish also filled the runner-up berth in the Topham Chase there.
While it might be unwise to leave Golden Silver out of the equation, the main threat to the top-rated pair may be course specialist Sizing Europe.
A hugely popular victor in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, Henry de Bromhead's stable star has enjoyed a decent break since that Cheltenham triumph and it will be interesting to watch him in all-aged company now.
The Sizing Europe team also field Loosen My Load, which was a Grade Two winner at Cheltenham last November and may reverse recent Fairyhouse placings on this better surface with Blackstairmountain, whose stable have another smart challenger in Flat Out, which was fifth at Cheltenham to Menorah.
That narrow festival scorer in turn was run out of it close home at Aintree by General Miller, which not surprisingly has been installed as favourite to follow up on similar going here despite those recent exertions. General Miller looks the part.
In the Growise Champion Novice Chase, mistake-prone Zaarito and Saddlers Storm, which both failed to complete when well fancied at Fairyhouse recently, are on retrieving missions in a tricky affair that seems tailor-made for The Midnight Club.
Successful over timber here a year ago, this sound stayer found the shorter trip of the Jewson Handicap Chase at Cheltenham no help to him despite finishing well to take third money behind Copper Bleu.
Jadanli was reckoned by many as fortunate to have profited most from Zaarito's tumble at Fairyhouse but jumps and stays admirably, while Irish Grand National third Whatuthink won't be found wanting for stamina either.
The Midnight Club makes most appeal.