Benie Des Dieux can end Willie Mullins' season on another high
Aidan O’Brien targets a 10th 2,000 Guineas success at Newmarket on Saturday
The Grade One Mares Hurdle looks an ideal opportunity for Benie Des Dieux to rebound from her final flight fall (above) at Cheltenham in March. Photograph: Inpho
There’s a changing of the seasons with Ireland’s National Hunt campaign winding up at Punchestown and coinciding with the start of the 2019 classic term in Newmarket on Saturday.
The jumps champions will be crowned at the finish of Punchestown’s festival with Willie Mullins’s 13th trainers title won by distance from Gordon Elliott and none of the final-day dramatics of the last two years.
His new number one jockey Paul Townend picks up a second riders title while Patrick Mullins is champion amateur for an 11th time. Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud once again tops the owners list.
On the racing front, Mullins has farmed the Grade One Mares Hurdle – named after his dual winner Annie Power – and Benie Des Dieux can give him a sixth win in the last seven years.
She is bidding to become the first since Annie Power (2014-15) to win the race back-to-back and it looks an ideal opportunity for Benie Des Dieux to rebound from her final flight fall at Cheltenham in March.
Mullins’s record in the AES Champion four-year-old hurdle is even better with six straight wins in a row. French Made is his hope this time although the filly looks like she faces a task against the English raider Fusil Raffles.
He appeared to be a prime Triumph Hurdle contender when landing February’s Adonis Hurdle at Kempton but an injury prevented him lining up at Cheltenham.
Another Nicky Henderson horse, Pentland Hills, filled the gap there, and at Aintree, although Fusil Raffles could yet prove his superior in ratings terms with an authoritative win here.
Saturday’s other €100,000 pot, the Ballymore Handicap Hurdle, has Mullins saddling a dozen of the 25 runners with a pair of reserves to boot.
Jockey arrangements suggest Eight And Bob could bounce back from a poor run at Easter although the runner-up in that race, Spades Are Trumps, might emerge best over this shorter trip.
Distance considerations will be uppermost in many thoughts ahead of the QIPCO 2,000 Guineas which kick-starts Europe’s major classic races.
At 11.50pm on Saturday the Kentucky Derby begins a US Triple Crown campaign but this time without Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore. Both missed the 2018 Guineas because of Mendelssohn’s fruitless tilt at the “Run for the Roses”. However O’Brien has a 10th win in Newmarket’s colts classic firmly in his sights with both Ten Sovereigns and Magna Grecia.
Moore has opted to partner the Middle Park winner Ten Sovereigns who tackles a mile for the first time.
Both horses are following O’Brien’s usual trend of arriving at Newmarket without a run as three year olds although the drawback of that for Ten Sovereigns is his stamina is untested. “You can’t be sure about the mile until he goes and does it,” O’Brien admitted on Friday.
He is drawn five of the 19-strong field and his stable companion is on the other side in stall 17. O’Brien first won the Guineas 21 years ago with King Of Kings but his 86 year old colleague Kevin Prendergast will try to bridge a 42-year gap back to this 1977 English Guineas hero, Nebbiolo.
Prendergast’s hope Madhmoon has a run under his belt this season, albeit when beaten at Leopardstown, but it remains to be seen if a stall one draw emerges as a negative.
A win for the veteran Curragh trainer would almost be as popular as a win for Co Meath-based Sheila Lavery with her first ever classic runner, Lady Kaya, in Sunday’s 1,000 Guineas.
Dual-purpose jockey Robbie Colgan partners the impressive trial winner against 14 opponents that include John Oxx’s Skitter Scatter and Joseph O’Brien’s Iridnessa.
O’Brien’s father, Aidan, has four chances to secure a fifth fillies classic including last year’s Rockfel winner, Just Wonderful.