Townend aiming to land an early blow with Chacun Pour Soi

Champion has first-dibs on powerful Willie Mullins team as he bids to hold off Blackmore’s jockeys’ title bid

Rachael Blackmore on Allaho comes home to win the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. Photograph: Francesca Altoft/Inpho

Rachael Blackmore on Allaho comes home to win the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. Photograph: Francesca Altoft/Inpho

 

It feels gloomily apt that public footfall at Punchestown this week is restricted to HSE testing and vaccination centres.

However, a year after being cancelled due to the pandemic, the Punchestown festival does at least take place behind closed doors this week.

Over five days starting on Tuesday, 40 races worth almost €3 million in prizemoney – including a dozen Grade Ones – will be fought over as a momentous National Hunt season comes to a close.

By the end of the week it is still possible that Rachael Blackmore’s pioneering exploits which have lifted the national mood could be topped by her becoming the first woman to be crowned champion jockey.

As she strives to close a four-winner gap (95-91) to Paul Townend, on Friday alone Blackmore can anticipate calling on elite talents such as the Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle and the hugely exciting novice Bob Olinger.

That bookmakers reckon the odds on such history are long is no surprise considering Townend has returned from a foot injury in time to have first-dibs on the Willie Mullins team.

It looks strong enough once again for the champion trainer to ponder approaching his own record 18 winner haul for the week three years ago.

Mullins’s son, Patrick, has a championship duel of his own for the amateur rider’s crown as he goes into the week level with Jamie Codd on 45 winners each.

All of it takes place, however, under the overarching context of Covid-19.

The last festival in 2019 saw a total attendance of 126,880 drawn to what is normally a famously boisterous occasion.

With only essential personnel needed for the sport to go ahead it makes for a grim juxtaposition having thousands filing through close by with virus testing in the events centre and vaccination in the trackside pavilion.

Both operations will be kept strictly separate and won’t impact on the other.

The caution surrounding what is usually such a social event will be familiar too for the up to 20 staff and personnel that will operate in a so-called ‘British bubble’ this week.

Superb jumping

Accommodated in the Killashee Hotel in Naas those charged with looking after almost a dozen cross-channel runners will be restricted to the hotel, the track, and shuttle buses between the two.

The first of the raiders to line up will be Nube Negra and First Flow in the first of the week’s €250,000 features, the William Hill Champion Chase due off at 5.25.

Probably not for the first time over the coming days, this looks a contest likely to be dominated by the trio of Blackmore, Mullins and Townend.

The latter has opted for Chacun Pour Soi leaving Blackmore to maintain the partnership with Allaho after their spectacular Ryanair victory at Cheltenham.

Once thought of as a potential Gold Cup contender, Mullins is dropping Allaho back to two miles for the first time since his bumper days to see if his superb jumping is better employed going short.

The logic of such a move looks sound. Letting Allaho rip at these obstacles could have even two-mile opposition under pressure. And if he pulls it off on the back of an exhausting Ryanair effort there will be no arguing with Allaho’s toughness either.

Nevertheless it could prove that Townend has got this pick right.

Chacun Pour Soi’s first run at Cheltenham last month ended in an anti-climactic third to Put The Kettle On in the Champion Chase.

Mullins dismissed any suggestion of the course being an issue but nevertheless ‘Chacun’ is now back at the scene of his spectacular 2019 novice success which appeared to herald the arrival of a major new talent.

He has never quite delivered on that promise but two miles on a quick surface around Punchestown might be an ideal scenario.

Mullins has won the Ecomm Champion Novice Hurdle five times in the last six renewals and looks to dominate again with Blue Lord and Echoes In Rain.

The latter comes here on the back of a career best win at Fairyhouse and gets the 7lbs mares’ allowance while her stable companion lines up on the back of a fall at Cheltenham.

Patrick Mullins is also likely to fancy his chance on the first-time hooded Hara Kiri in the bumper.

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