Friday March 30th 2.15pm
The Cheltenham festival may have come and gone for this season but there is plenty to look forward for all students of the National Hunt game. On both sides of the Irish Sea there are head to head contests to be Champion trainer and I don’t believe any of the four protagonists if they say “it’s just a bit of fun” as these guys win big races as a matter of routine but being Champion Trainer is important for them personally, their staff, their owners and all connected to the yard. Not much mileage in the advertising logo “Second best trainer 2017”!
So in the UK it’s Nicholls v Henderson with the big guns going for Aintree, Ayr and finally Sandown on the last day of the season. Personally I think the canny Team Ditcheat will just shade it as Paul Nicholls “wants” it whilst Nicky Henderson would “like” it to be Seven Barrows although I often under-estimate Henderson’s competitive streak!
Now the Irish contest is something different altogether. Willie Mullins v Gordon Elliott. So many sub plots and an undercurrent that could turn personal very quickly especially if a Mr M. O’Leary gets time on a microphone! It is the Irish contest I wish to concentrate on as I think there is some money to be made.
Let’s start off with some bold statements.
Victory in their respective home Grand Nationals will seal the deal.
Just about certainly for Nicky Henderson if he breaks his duck in the race but he has just one runner in Cocktails at Dawn who is an upwards of 66/1 to do so. Definitely for Paul Nicholls and he has two live chances in the classy Saphir du Rheu (best priced 20/1) and last year’s Scottish National winner Vicente (solid 25/1). Failure of either to do so and I will be looking closely at the Ayr Scottish National three day programme, especially at who Nicky Henderson sends there.
If Willie Mullins wins at Fairyhouse I think it would be game over and he could be represented by Alechi Inois, Pleasant Company, Bachasson or Bellshill and maybe Haymount or Arbre de Vie. It would seem the first two are going to Aintree which for Alechi Inois is fine but from Willie Mullins point of view I would have thought he wanted Pleasant Company at Fairyhouse. He’s a bridle horse, he’s best going right handed, he needs some cut in the ground and he won last time out over 3m 1f at Fairyhouse. I can only presume Malcolm Denmark fancies a shot at Aintree for a piece of history and twice the money! That would leave the novices for the Irish National and he has mentioned Bellshill as “one for the race” but he may need him at Punchestown for the €100K 3m novice chase?
Gordon Elliott could saddle half the field courtesy of his Gigginstown battalions but even if he did win the Irish Grand National I am not convinced the Trainers championship would be over.
Willie Mullins is going to blow Gordon Elliott out of the water at Punchestown.
Now this is the part that “Kevin Blake said don’t do it!” You have got to get inside Willie Mullins head.
Before you start looking at the horses it is important to look at the Punchestown Festival race programme.
There are a total of 38 races including 12 Grade 1 contests. Four @ €250K, eight @ €100K plus two €100K bumpers and three €100K handicaps.
There are no intermediate trip Championship chases, the 2m 4f race is a handicap, the same for the novices which makes Yorkhill a wild card with both he and Un de Sceaux supposedly dropping back in trip!
There is no mares novice hurdle which means Closutton’s strong team in this division, Let’s Dance, Augusta Kate, Airlie Beach etc., could be taking on the geldings.
There are seven bumper races, two of which are €100K events and the Mare’s only event is worth just €50K which means the Cheltenham 1-2 of Fayonagh and Debuchet may go to Aintree for the valuable Grade 2 contest there. That makes this division wide open, Samcro and Poli Roi for Elliott and Getabird and Ballyward for Mullins, if he can get them fit, neither of which would surprise me. Indeed I expect both yards to pull some serious rabbits out of the hat when it comes to the bumpers.
So let’s look at the four big money Grade 1 races to start off with using current UK handicap marks to see where we stand.
Tuesday 5.30 Boylesports 2m Champion chase. No Douvan, out for the season. No Special Tiara, the Cheltenham winner, he’s going to Sandown to take on Altior! Gods Own OR165 will probably attempt to repeat the Aintree/Punchestown double of last season but surely WM will have him covered with Un de Sceaux OR171 on recent Tingle Creek form and all back runs. Indeed the only horse to beat Un de Sceaux over fences at two miles when he’s stood up is the mighty Sprinter Sacre!
Wednesday 5.30 Coral 3m 1f Punchestown Gold Cup chase. Jessica Harringtons Gold Cup winner Sizing John OR168 rightly dominates the market here. WM has Djakadam OR165 who will try to show that his mistake at Cheltenham’s second last cost him the race. Just like the Cheltenham version Djakadam has been runner up in the last two editions of this race. Gordon Elliott will be relying on two second season chasers in the shape of C&D Lexus chase winner Outlander OR168 and Empire of Dirt OR166 who will both have to take a giant step forward from their Cheltenham runs! Eddie O’Leary surprisingly suggests they may both go to Aintree for the Bowl. Looks a tasty race and if Coneygree OR166 or a Colin Tizzard inmate lined up that would add further spice.
Thursday 5.30 Ladbrokes 3m Champion Staying hurdle. WM would seem to be in the box seat here with his Cheltenham winner, Nicholls Canyon OR168 and strong back up in Shaneshill OR157 and Clondaw Warrior OR155. Snow Falcon would appear to be the biggest Irish danger but surely it will be any UK raiders to fear most. Lil Rockefeller OR168 was only beaten ¾ length at Cheltenham and with Aintree looking to be quick ground is a likely runner in Ireland. His last run was seven pounds better than anything before, can he repeat the dose? Cheltenham’s third was the financially calamitous Unowhatimeanharry OR166 who had been taking the division by storm up to that last run and if there was any real juice in the ground surely JP and Harry Fry would be tempted. Indeed the BHA handicapper put on his official blog, “With Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown still to come, the picture could change again and Unowhatimeanharry is probably worth another chance to enhance his reputation. While only marginally below his pre-race rating of 167 here, he simply did not pick up in the usual manner after travelling into the race as well as any. Connections suggested the faster ground may have been a factor but he still looked a horse that was improving before the Festival and he has probably not flattened out just yet.”
Will Warren Greatrex send last year’s Punchestown winner, One Track Mind OR158, and what shape is he in? You are not going to win this year’s renewal off OR147!
There is of course another fly in the ointment in the shape of Pertemps Final handicap winner Presenting Percy OR159 who is improving at a rate of knots.
WM may need to fire all his arrows here and if Limini is looking 100% for the Mares that could include rabbit number one, Vroum Vroum Mag OR152.
Friday 5.30 BetDaq 2m Champion hurdle. Here’s rabbit number two. The $64 million dollar question is “Will we finally see the reappearance of Annie Power”? Willie Mullins March 28 2017, 08:56 “Annie Power could run at Punchestown. We step up work in the next couple of weeks. Min is just OK, Annie is in better order.” So Annie Power is OR166 (plus 7lbs mare allowance), Willie also has Arctic Fire OR162, Footpad OR157 and Wicklow Brave OR155 (however looks destined for a Flat campaign) not to mention the other two mares with their 7lb allowances Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag both on OR152. The Elliott team should include Petit Mouchoir OR160 and possibly his best mare, Apples Jade OR154. Nicky Henderson is considering travelling over Brain Power OR162 after Cheltenham’s disappointment. If Annie Power misses the race it is wide open, if she turns up she is ten pounds plus well in!
I fully expect Un de Sceaux, Djakadam, Nicholls Canyon and yes, Annie Power, to turn up at Punchestown fit and ready to run the race of their life. The only one I would back now is Un de Sceaux and 4/5 is not my kind of price but I could see him going off south of 1/3 on the day.
Going to post this now and we’ll look at the novices and the handicaps in Part 2 “You can’t win anything with kids”.