JJ Slevin grabs more big-race glory as Banbridge pounces to deny Captain Guinness

Mystical Power and Spillane’s Tower supply Grade One double for JP McManus and Mark Walsh in front of 16,361 Day One festival crowd

JJ Slevin on Banbridge gets up on the line to win The William Hill Champion Steeplechase (Grade 1) at Punchestown. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Jockey JJ Slevin underlined his big-race pedigree once again with a dramatic last-gasp success on Banbridge in the Punchestown festival’s Day One feature on Tuesday.

Slevin delivered the 6-1 winner trained by his cousin Joseph O’Brien with a perfectly timed late lunge in the €300,000 William Hill Champion Chase to touch off Captain Guinness who’d looked all over the winner for Rachael Blackmore.

The latter horse made a mockery of those prepared to dismiss his surprise victory in Cheltenham’s two-mile crown as a blip and appeared set to bring up the big festival double after clearing the last.

Two miles has always been at the limit of Captain Guinness’ stamina though and if his natural speed had Banbridge struggling for much of the race, stamina eventually kicked in and proved decisive.


As the 11-10 favourite Dinoblue faded on the run-in, Slevin galvanised his partner to overhaul a rival desperate for the line and eventually get the verdict by a neck.

Having begun April with Irish Grand National glory aboard Intense Raffles, it was a perfect end to the month for the 31-year-old rider and a morale boost ahead of his date with Fastorslow in Wednesday’s Gold Cup.

Last year’s 20-1 success aboard Fastorslow in the same race sealed Slevin’s link with owner Sea Mulryan and since then the horse also secured John Durkan glory at Punchestown in November.

JJ Slevin celebrates winning The William Hill Champion Steeplechase (Grade 1) on Banbridge at Punchestown. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

However, the thin line between big-race glory and despair got painfully underlined in March’s Cheltenham Gold Cup where Slevin got unseated from Fastorslow just as the race was hotting up.

If much of the subsequent virulent online criticism came from jockeys of the grandstand variety, Slevin admitted: “I’d say that was one of the most frustrating moments of my career.”

If the impression is that quite a few demons will be exorcised if Fastorslow emerges on top, Slevin rode with noticeable freedom on Banbridge in front of an official 16,361 attendance (up from 14,937 in 2023.)

“There was no pressure on him. Joseph always takes the pressure off when you’re riding for him. We were riding to run well and it’s great when it works out.

“We’ve waited all year for good ground for this horse. The patience Joseph’s had with him has been unbelievable, to have the guts to wait. And he’s rewarded today.

“I thought at the last, I knew I had to get a good jump. I met it forward, he was good at it. When he landed then he was motoring and when you’re landing motoring, you’ve got a little squeak,” he said.

From his own experience during a brief but stellar riding career, O’Brien knows better than most how much flak can come a jockey’s way but commented: “I thought JJ gave him a fantastic ride and the tempo of the race was quite what we thought it’d be. He saved a bit, and the horse found a lot.”

Dinoblue’s third was the single Grade One misstep on the day for Mark Walsh who secured a top-flight double for his boss JP McManus aboard Mystic Power and Spillane’s Tower.

Mystical Power confirmed Aintree placings with Firefox, and reversed Cheltenham form with Slade Steel, through a gritty display in the KPMG Champion Novice Hurdle.

The son of Galileo and Annie Power was also put to the pin of his collar to stick with a slick early pace but eventually came through to justify 2-1 favouritism.

Mark Walsh onboard Mystical Power (green and gold silks) beats Jack Kennedy onboard Firefox to win the KPMG Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Walsh later pulled off a popular victory in the Dooley Group Champion Novice Chase as Spillane’s Tower made light of the step up to three miles and followed up his Easter Sunday win at Fairyhouse.

At the line he had a relatively comfortable three parts of a length in hand of the other 5-2 joint-favourite Monty’s Star and joins a powerful list of young chasers for McManus that also includes Fact To File and Corbett’s Cross.

For trainer Jimmy Mangan, Spillane’s Tower is a singular prospect that has taken him back to the big-race spotlight he once principally enjoyed through the Grand National hero Monty’s Pass.

“He’s a special horse to us,” Mangan said. “We’re dreaming a nice bit about him because he has something special.”

Mystical Power could be looking at a Champion Hurdle campaign next season after continuing to confound Willie Mullins’s expectations.

“I think Annie Power is coming out in him. She showed plenty of ability, but he didn’t show any ability early. When he was a three-year-old he didn’t show me much ability and at the end of his four-year-old year he started to show a little bit,” Mullins said.

“It looked a real staying race there which would mean that he’s a 2½ mile hurdler and they are the sort of horses you probably need to win a Champion Hurdle so maybe it’s all pointing in that direction,” he added.

Considering how he has been carrying all before him, there was almost surprise that Mullins had ‘only’ one other winner although the ease with which Daddy Long Legs landed a handicap made his 16-5 odds look a steal.

It moved Paul Townend to 116 winners for the season, six behind Jack Kennedy in the race for the jockey’s title.

“Every winner counts,” he said. “They were important for Willie last week and important for me now.”

Kennedy drew a blank but his runner-up placing on Firefox saw him pick up an eight-day suspension. Going one over the permitted limit of strikes was a third recent breach of the whip rules.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column