The annual Punchestown Festival is one of the highlights in the Irish National Hunt calendar and one of the most eagerly anticipated meetings of the season. This demanding track is right-handed and undulating, with the races always truly run and providing a stiff test of stamina (even though the ground has usually dried up and rode “good” on all five days this year).
Here I look back at the festival highlights and share my top ten reflections for Beth.bet subscribers.
The great National Hunt divide between UK and Ireland – Nothing illustrated the divide in class and quality of the standard of National Hunt racing between the British and Irish stables more clearly than the five day Punchestown meeting. The festival was an impressive display of top-class racing, yet UK trainers barely sent a runner over and only Paul Nicholls (two) and Anthony Honeyball managed to take a prize back to the UK. The festival was completely dominated by Willie Mullins, who showed that he has so much depth in the training ranks and will be a dominant force for many years to come.
‘Chacun Pour Soi’ proves Cheltenham form all wrong – This Grade 1 winner was one of the most impressive winners of the week at Punchestown, disputing a really strong pace in the early stages with market rival ‘Allaho’, jumping superbly and in full command turning for home to land the Grade 1 William Hill Champion Chase. This proved that the defeat in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham (when one of the most heavily backed favourites of the week) was a blip and he seems sure to return in 2022 to try and prove that result all wrong. The current quote around 6/1 to win the 2022 Queen Mother Champion Chase looks a very big price, and for those willing to tie their cash up for 11 months, a very sound investment.
The dominance of Willie Mullins – On the first three days of the festival Willie Mullins trained a staggering thirteen winners, all for different owners including an incredible seven Grade 1 winners. By the end of Saturday, he was clearly in a league of his own, with a remarkable 19 wins over the five days, and rarely has one yard been so dominant in the sport. Whether this is healthy for competition is a moot point for the sport, and it has to be said that both Henry de Bromhead and Denise Foster struggled to make an impact at all at the festival (with most of their runners looking to have had enough after a long season).
The “match of the century” doesn’t live up to expectations – this was billed as one of the great clashes of the modern jumping age with ‘Monkfish’ taking on ‘Envoi Allen’ in the Grade 1 Dooley Insurance Novice Chase. However, as is often the case in racing, there was an unconsidered outsider who upset things to the delight of bookmakers. The mare ‘Colreevy’ made all of the running and saw them both off, waiting in front and quickening at the right time under an inspired ride from David Mullins. Monkfish was far from disgraced but made mistakes at the wrong time in a tactical race and he still heads to the 2022 Gold Cup as a live contender. But it is back to the drawing board for Envoi Allen, who reportedly finished badly lame and now has a lot to prove at the highest level after that expensive fall at the Cheltenham Festival.
‘Galopin Des Champs’ emerges as a new star – The Grade 1 Irish Mirror Hurdle winner was sent off one of the heaviest backed horses of the week, smashed down to 7/4 favourite from much bigger earlier in the week, and cruised round hard on the bridle under Paul Townend to land the spoils. He had won the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the festival but stepped up dramatically on that form here and looked a proper Grade 1 horse in the making. He is reportedly going to be aimed at the Stayers Hurdle in 2022 at Cheltenham and would be a fascinating contender, with loads of improvement to come after just 6 career runs over hurdles so far.
Killcruit vs Sir Gerhard in the Bumper – The form was reversed here from Cheltenham, with Killcruit (who looked an extremely unlucky loser in the festival champion bumper) powering away from his old rival. Both of them are cracking prospects for novices next winter, with chasing reportedly on the agenda for both sooner rather than later.
‘Clan des Obeaux’ proves a rare bright spot for UK racing – Paul Nicholls is never one to shy away from a challenge, and he was proved absolutely right when Clan des Obeaux beat ‘Al Boum Photo’ in a thrilling Grade 1 Irish Gold Cup. This was a fantastic ride by Sam Twiston-Davies (who was deputising for the injured Harry Cobden), and his mount jumped and travelled really strongly in a brutally fast run race. Although one or two disappointed after a long season, this represents top class form and Clan des Obeaux seems a transformed character (with cheek-pieces recently fitted making all the difference to his attitude under pressure).
‘Klassical Dream’ lands the gamble of the week – This was one of the most amazing performances by a horse who has suffered many setbacks and had been nursed back to peak fitness by Willie Mullins. He was over 20/1 in the week before racing but was sent off a heavily backed 5/1 chance on the day and did not give his many backers a moment to worry. The 7-y-o did not come off the bridle under a motionless Patrick Mullins to land the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Stayers hurdle and looks one to follow now if his injury problems are behind him.
‘Energumene’ – This Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase winner was another incredible result for Willie Mullins on Thursday of the festival. Making all the running at a fast pace under Paul Townend (and jumping really fluently), he should now head to the Queen Mother Chase in 2022 where the anticipated clash between Shishkin and Chacun Pour Soi will be eagerly awaited by all National Hunt fans. He has loads of potential after just four career runs over fences, and there should be plenty more improvement in the tank aged 7.
‘Honeysuckle’ – The Cheltenham hero who landed the cash in the Champion Hurdle put in another brilliant display to win a Grade 1 race on the Friday at Punchestown, and she will be very much the one to beat in next year’s Champion Hurdle. This performance perhaps lacked the sparkle of her destructive display in March, but the De Bromhead yard struggled all week (plenty seemed tired, and Bob Ollinger was withdrawn coughing). She remains unbeaten after 12 runs over hurdles, and her alliance with Rachael Blackmore has been the highlight of the NH season overall.