In Part I “Kevin Blake said don’t do it” I suggested that the Punchestown Festival this season will hold the key to who wears the crown as Irish Champion trainer this season and although Fairyhouse may well tip the scales further towards Gordon Elliott if he wins the valuable Irish National although Willie Mullins will fancy winning the RyanAir Gold Cup novice chase, as Jessica Harrington suggested this weekend his Yorkhill could line up, and the equably valuable G1 Mares novice hurdle with any number of his ten entries. Indeed I felt “Willie Mullins is going to blow Gordon Elliott out of the water at Punchestown.” There are five novice Championship G1 races, three hurdling and two chasing, each worth €100K+ and the 2m4f novice chase is a handicap for the same money. With the mares novice hurdle only worth €25K the Mullins top girls could well be taking the boys on instead. Mullins has a huge list of candidates to choose from and it’s real quality as well as quantity.
If we start looking at the 2m race, the G1 Herald novice hurdle on the Tuesday, it looks to be a straight rematch from the Supreme at Cheltenham where Elliott’s Labaik beat Mullin’s Melon? I would be quite confident in backing Melon right now. On only his second start he almost won a Championship race! With that run extra under his belt he could improve further as we now know he’s good enough and he’s got the Festival experience. Labaik on the other hand has all the ability in the world but with no cracking whip in Ireland will he condescend to start and more pertinently will he even be in the field? He goes to the Aintree pre National Sales, no doubt with a reserve in the £300K ball park, and there is every chance he could remain in Britain if he is on the Potts, Tinsdale/Drew, Brookhouse or McManus shopping list? Without him the Elliott cupboard looks a little bare!
Willie Mullins could run the mare Airlie Beach OR143(plus allowances) if she is anywhere near her 2016 form when she beat Saturnas and the boys in the G1 Royal Bond at Fairyhouse. Saturnas OR146 badly disappointed in the Deloitte and if he’s had the proverbial “visit to Lourdes” he could be a contender. The same goes for Rich Ricci’s early season hype horse, Senewalk.
In the 2m4f G1 Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice hurdle on Friday Willie Mullins will need to box clever as the first three home in the Neptune at Cheltenham were trained in the UK, Willoughby Court, Neon Wolf and Messire des Obeaux and his final selections could well depend if any of these three are going to line up.
Willoughby Court’s trainer Ben Pauling, who has a chasing career in mind for his rising star, said: “He could not be better. He has come out of it very well but he looks like he has had a race. There are no two ways about it as he is a little bit lighter than he was. He has just trotted and been walking since. I don’t think he will run again this season, but you can never say never. I think he’s a chaser all over as his jumping is what makes him the horse that he is.” Neon Wolf’s trainer Harry Fry suggested “Neon Wolf will be entered in the two-and-a-half mile novice hurdle (Grade 1 Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle) at Punchestown, and if he runs again it will be there, but it’s the last week in April and it will be ground dependent.”
Alan King may make the running plans of Messire des Obeaux clearer in this week’s RP Weekender but the horses only entry at Aintree is in the Sefton over three miles.
If Neon Wolf runs, and I think he will, you will need to be a 152+ horse to win this race, if he doesn’t you may need to be only 145+. Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have a whole barn of candidates to choose from but I will put forward four. This is the ideal trip for impressive Cheltenham Mares novice winner Let’s Dance and with her mares allowance she is an OR154 animal. If Willie sticks with the boys a case could be made for Bacardys, OR146, who was well backed to win the Neptune but nothing went right for him especially when Consul de Thaix fell in front of him. The other would be Neptune fifth Kemboy about whom in my Cheltenham Notebook I said “Kemboy travelled at least three wide with little or no cover but still had a good chance turning for home and as this was just his third run over hurdles, he won his maiden and then was second to Let’s Dance, a Festival winner, in a G2 and if Ruby was on board he could be good at Punchestown on the Friday in the G1 novices over 2m 4f.” Finally you have to add Bleu Berry who was an impressive in winning the G2 2m novice hurdle at Fairyhouse at the weekend in the hands of Ruby Walsh. The trainer said afterwards “He’s improving with every run and he’ll probably head to Punchestown and go novice chasing next season. He could go out to two and a half miles (at Punchestown) but we’ll decide closer to the time when we see what we have.”
Gordon Elliott is going to have to have a good rummage around his barns to find a competitive candidate as the obvious pair of Brelade and Runfordave ran at Fairyhouse at the weekend where neither exactly covered themselves in glory, to my eyes both had “handicap” written all over them. He could drop the disappointment of the Alfred Bartlett, Death Duty OR149, back in trip health permitting? His Martin Pipe handicap hurdle at Cheltenham, Champagne Classic OR145, may be worth a go but the horse I would love to see entered is The Storyteller OR142. He was a heavily gambled 9/2 favourite for the Martin Pipe handicap hurdle on the Friday before Cheltenham but pulled a muscle on the gallops the following morning. If he is back to 100% I think he could be an OR150+ horse.
The aforementioned Death Duty OR149 could try to rebuild his reputation for Gordon Elliott in the G1 Irish Daily Mirror Novice hurdle over 3m on Festival Wednesday but Willie Mullins has the Alfred Bartlett winner in Penhill, OR153, who will likely have Henry de Bromheads runner up, Monalee OR148, to beat again. However an even bigger danger could be the comfortable Pertemps handicap winner, Presenting Percy OR159, who has seen his mark rise 44lbs since he won his maiden hurdle at Galway last October. Connections may be tempted to go for the Championship event instead with a horse in such good form before novice chasing next season.
Elliott is up against it in the novice hurdling division but with the support of Gigginstown Stud can he fare any better over the larger obstacles?
Just the two Championship races as the 2m 4f novice chase is a €100K handicap. The G1 Growise Champion 3m novice event is on the opening day, Tuesday and the market could be headed by horses who avoided Cheltenham such as Our Duke (Jessica Harrington) OR153 and Coney Island (Eddy Harty) OR152 and although Gigginstown could run two from Cheltenham in Alpha des Obeaux OR147, who bled for the second time, and Disko OR155 who surely has to step up to three miles neither are trained by Elliott.
The first Irish horse home in the RSA was Bellshill OR148 for Mullins and as the jungle drums suggest he may run in the Irish National if he comes here instead he has to be a serious player as his Cheltenham form is 003 whereas he is unbeaten in his two races at Punchestown. I am presuming that Nicky Henderson will be sending Might Bite OR161 and Whisper OR151 to Aintree and if they then came here three Championship races in six weeks is a big ask against what could be a real quality field especially on Good to Soft ground!
Elliott may have more success in the mid distance handicap with the likes of Jetstream Jack, mind you Mullins has some likely lads of his own in Great Field and Blazer. Final dec’s will be eagerly awaited!
For the 2m G1 Ryanair €115K Novice Steeplechase I expect Mullins the magician to put his hand deep into his hat and pull out a super fit, all cylinders firing Min OR160 who is going to totally stuff Irelands weakest division. If I was Kim Bailey I would send Charbel OR154 here instead of Aintree and on softer ground give it a real go! If those two plus Altior and Yorkhill missed the race Mullins could still win the race with Royal Caviar OR146. Could those three top Northern novice chasers, Waiting Patiently, Cloudy Dream and Forest Bihan be tempted? Geography suggests Aintree would be a more likely destination.
So once again I think Elliott is struggling, this time with the novices. The question is how many can Mullins win with his kids? In Melon, Penhill and Min he has three solid chances. Elliott is going to have to dominate the valuable bumpers and be lucky in the handicaps otherwise the crown will return to be worn once again by the King of Closutton, Willie Mullins.