We’re almost ready to experience the annual Irish response to the Cheltenham Festival, the Punchestown version, and what a five days we have in prospect.
Given the Irish domination of most of the major Prestbury Park prizes in recent years, this meeting almost has a feel of Irish racing’s ‘welcome home’ to its heroes and heroines of six weeks earlier. Lots of them are turning out again and we’ll be celebrating that as the week unfolds.
However, just to prove that we racing lovers can’t have everything, there will be no Cheltenham Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard. He hasn’t run at this meeting since being beaten in the Champion Novice Chase by Delta Work in 2019.
So who will be thrilling us with their presence? Top of the list will be Ireland’s first ladies, Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore. The unbeaten eight-year-old mare looks set to line-up in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle (5.25) on Friday, when she’ll be long odds-on to extend that winning run to 16.
She is, of course, the defending champion of this particular crown, having followed up last year’s defeat of Sharjah in the Champion Hurdle itself, by beating the same opponent into second in this race.
Since then, we’ve seen her three more times and she’s looked as good as ever. The fact that she beat former champion Epatante at Cheltenham last month and then that mare dotted up in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle recently, says plenty about how tough a challenge she will continue to present to all-comers.
Willie Mullins looks set to let Allaho take his chance in Wednesday’s Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup (5.55). He’s also entered in the two-mile William Hill Champion Chase on Tuesday but the former looks the likely target.
The eight-year-old has enjoyed a tremendous run since the start of 2021, winning the last two Ryanair Chases at Cheltenham and also the John Durkan, over 2m4f, on this track last December. He has won over 3m as a hurdler and if conditions stay on the dry side, you’d expect him to prove tough to beat now going back up in trip. He’s shown he has plenty of toe but you can’t win a Ryanair without being able to stay and it will be great whether he can do so again some of the top stayers around.
Adding depth to the centrepiece of the meeting are likely to be British raider Clan Des Obeaux, who won the race last year, last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Galvin, who had been many people’s idea of the Blue Riband winner at Cheltenham He’s been confirmed as a definite runner by trainer Gordon Elliott.
The William Hill Champion Chase (Tuesday, 5.25) should whet the appetite for the rest of the week with the brilliant Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Energumene taking on stablemate Chacun Pour Soi. If this race doesn’t end up being a Willie Mullins 1-2 it will be a big surprise.
The latter’s record when travelling to Britain has been modest, which will always be a slight blemish on his record but there’s no doubt that on home turf he is a high class performer and you’d expect this to be a thriller.
Bob Olinger will again have the chance to show what he can do when he lines up for the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase (Tuesday, 6.35). The Henry de Bromhead-trained seven-year-old was a fortuitous winner at Cheltenham, courtesy of the unlucky last fence tumble by Galopin Des Champs, when he had the race sewn up. That Mullins-trained runner will not be reopposing but Bob Olinger could still have a tough race on his hands, with the likes of Beacon Edge, Fury Road and Capodanno all entered.
The stamina-laden hurdlers will take centre-stage on Thursday in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle (5.25). KlassicalDream, who disappointed when fifth of 10 behind Flooring Porter in Cheltenham’s Stayers’ Hurdle last month, gets a quick chance for redemption here.
He’ll not be up against the dual Cheltenham champ, who is not entered. Klassical Dream dotted up by nine-lengths in this race last year, beating James Du Merlais and Ronald Pump. Neither of those rivals reoppose but there is plenty of quality among what is likely to be a small field.
Zanahiyr, Sire Du Berlais, Champ, Thyme Hill and former-Cheltenham champion Paisley Park are the other possible for what would be a mouthwatering contest.
Saturday sees the mares and the juveniles as the focus of attention. The Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle (4.25) includes all the big names from the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Vauban, as the winner at Prestbury Park, heads the list of juvenile stars, while Fil Dor, Pied Piper, Icare Allen and Il Etait Temps all followed him home (in that order) at Cheltenham and what a race it would be if they all took their chance again at the weekend!
Preceding that (3.50) it’s the Coolmore Kew Gardens Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle. The cream of the crop here is British raider and former Champion Hurdler Epatante. Should Nicky Henderson let her take her chance, she showed her abilities over this 2m4f trip at Aintree recently and she’ll be very hard to beat.
Leading the home challenge for the big prize could be the Willie Mullins-trained Concertista, while Marie’s Rock, Stormy Ireland and Echoes In Rain should ensure it’s as competitive-a-race as ever.
The full race details for what promises to be a fabulous five days are as follows:
Tuesday, April 26:
3.40pm: Punchestown Mares Novice Hurdle (Listed)
4.15pm: Bective Stud Champion Novice Hurdle (Grade 1)
4.50pm: Killashee Hotel Handicap Hurdle (Grade B)
5.25pm: Champion Chase (Grade 1)
6pm: Goffs Land Rover Bumper
6.35pm: Champion Novice Chase (Grade 1)
7.10pm: Cross Country Chase
7.45pm: Punchestown Flat Race
Wednesday, April 27:
3.40pm: Adare Manor Opportunity Series Final Handicap Hurdle
4.15pm: Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Hurdle Series Final
4.45pm: Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle
5.20pm: Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle (Grade 1)
5.55pm: Punchestown Gold Cup (Grade 1)
6.30pm: Punchestown Champion I.N.H. Flat Race
7.05pm: OMC Claims Handicap Chase (Grade A)
7.45pm: Irish EBF Mares Flat Race (Grade 3)
Thursday, April 28:
3.40pm: Specialist Joinery Group Handicap Hurdle
4.15pm: Pigsback.com Handicap Chase (Grade B)
4.50pm: La Touche Cup Cross Country Race
5.25pm: Champion Stayers Hurdle (Grade 1)
6pm: Conway Piling Handicap Hurdle (Grade B)
6.35pm: Barberstown Castle Novice Chase (Grade 1)
7.10pm: Mares Irish EBF Handicap Chase
7.45pm: JP&M 70 Years In Business (C&G) Flat Race
Friday, April 29:
3.40pm: Punchestown Chase For The Bishopscourt Cup
4.15pm: EMS Copiers Novice Handicap Chase (Grade A)
4.50pm: Hanlon Concrete Irish EBF Mares Chase (Grade 2)
5.25pm: Paddy Power Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)
6pm: Champion Novice Hurdle (Grade 1)
6.35pm: Irish Daily Star Champion Hunters Chase
7.10pm: Salessense International Novice Hurdle
7.45pm: Avison Young INH Flat Race
Saturday, April 30:
2.35pm: Dooley Insurance Group WFA Cross Country Chase
3.10pm: Punchestown Handicap Chase
3.50pm: Coolmore Kew Gardens Irish EBF Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)
4.25pm: Champion Four Year Old Hurdle (Grade 1)
5pm: Pat Taffe Handicap Chase (Grade B)
5.35pm: Punchestown Handicap Hurdle (Grade B)
6.10pm: Buggyman Flat Race