Mullins to remain dominant at Punchestown
Champion trainer can kick off festival with a hat-trick
Willie Mullins flourishes at Punchestown like nowhere else.
Considering Willie Mullins’s big-race reach now extends as far as Japan, there looks to be zero advantage in taking the champion trainer on in his own Punchestown backyard this week.
Gowran may be the closest geographical racecourse to Mullins but it is at the Kildare track that the Carlow-based Kilkenny-man flourishes like nowhere else. Only a rare Noel Meade blip in 2005 has prevented Mullins from clean-sweeping the leading trainer award at the festival for the last 10 years, memorably notching up a dozen winners in 2009 and 2010.
With over €3 million in home prize money already in the bag this season, not to mention five Cheltenham winners and a historic win in Tokyo for Blackstairmountain just over a week ago, the odds must favour another rousing end to the National Hunt season for Mullins.
Champagne Fever’s clash with Jezki in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is the evidence of last year’s festival where the Mullins runner looked to improve from his earlier Cheltenham bumper success.
He has three lengths in hand of Jezki from Cheltenham’s Supreme a month ago although Barry Geraghty is now back on Jessica Harrington’s runner. Geraghty was also on board Jezki when they beat Champagne Fever in December’s Royal Bond but the formbook suggests the grey is a much better operator in the spring.
There is also the fact that Jezki jumped noticeably to his left in the Royal Bond and today will be his first time racing right-handed since. “We know he likes the course, which I think is a big advantage,” Mullins said yesterday. “This will probably be the softest of the ground so we were happy enough to stick to two miles with him.”
A classic match-up between a horse with a liking for being up with the pace, and one who likes to stalk and pounce late looks in the offing and on ground with a trace of heavy in it, Champagne Fever looks capable of confirming the Cheltenham form.
Ruby Walsh faces a mountain in overhauling Davy Russell for the jockeys’ championship before Saturday’s final day of the season but the man who has been leading rider here in eight of the last 10 years may not be done with yet.
In 2009 Walsh rode 10 winners at the festival and with the power of the Mullins team behind him, Russell won’t be relaxing in front just yet. However, Walsh may have got it wrong in the Grade one Growise Champion Novice Chase. Back In Focus, the four-mile winner at Cheltenham, is his pick over the other Graham Wylie-owned runner, Boston Bob, in an eight-runner field that sees an English raider in Harry Topper.
Along with Sprinter Sacre, Kim Bailey’s runner is part of a cross-channel raiding party no doubt keen to emulate the Irish success at Cheltenham, and which includes runners from powerful yards such as Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls.
Cheltenham, though, suggests the Irish novices are that bit better than their cross-channel rivals, a point emphasised by the RSA eventually won by Lord Windermere.
After a less than straight-forward passage through that race, Boston Bob arrived at the last looking a winner only to tip up. Very soft ground is probably not to his advantage, unlike his stable-companion, but Boston Bob possesses a level of class from a Grade One novice campaign over hurdles that Back In Focus probably doesn’t.
Paul Townend again comes in for the ride today and can steer Boston Bob to success.