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Stars align as Punchestown Festival delivers to set up fascinating sequels

Donn McClean reviews last week’s action at the County Kildare racecourse.

THE SENSE OF anticipation this year was high, and the 2022 Punchestown Festival didn’t disappoint.

For all that it delivered though, it still left room for the sequels.

That’s the nature of sport, even sport at the highest level. Can the All-Ireland winners repeat the feat? How will the Premier League champions fare in the Champions’ League?

1. Stars align

paul-townend-on-allaho-celebrates-winning Allaho and Paul Townend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The stars were there, and their performances aligned. Allaho, Energumene, Honeysuckle, Klassical Dream, warm favourites for the four feature races of the week, respectively, the Punchestown Gold Cup, the Punchestown Champion Chase, the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Stayers’ Hurdle, and they all went in.

Allaho was monstrous in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup. We knew beforehand how good Willie Mullins’ horse was over two and a half miles, we knew that he has this relentless gallop that puts his rivals under pressure, and that he can maintain it all the way to the winning line over the intermediate distance. We just didn’t know before Wednesday that he could maintain it for three miles.

In five previous runs over three miles, he had won just once – a Grade 3 novices’ hurdle at Clonmel in 2019. He was zero for two over three miles over fences, and he was zero for four over three miles at Grade 1 level.

The punters didn’t seem to have any doubts about his stamina, backing the Cheveley Park Stud’s horse down to a restrictive 6/5 before the off, and Paul Townend didn’t appear to have any doubts either. The champion jockey sent his horse forward from early and quickly got him into that metronomic rhythm, which he maintained all the way to the winning line, crossing it 14 lengths clear of his closest rival.

The victory opens up new avenues for Allaho now. The King George looks like an obvious mid-range target for him, over three miles at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is over an extra two and a half furlongs, at Cheltenham, it’s another step, but you still have to put in in your pipe for now.

Energumene was very good in winning the William Hill Champion Chase. Willie Mullins’ horse sat in second place behind his stable companion Chacun Pour Soi for most of the race, moved up into a fractional lead at the third last fence and, despite making a mistake at the second last, he cleared away on the run-in to win by eight and a half lengths.

There was unfinished business between the two stable companions from the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, Chacun Pour Soi departed at the fifth last fence there in a race in which Energumene ran out an impressive winner. Back at Punchestown, where Chacun was two for two, there was competition all right, but it was a competition that Energumene ultimately won impressively again. Tony Bloom’s horse has now won seven of his eight races over fences, and he is the outstanding two-mile chaser at present.

Klassical Dream had questions to answer in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle. Beaten in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January, beaten in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, again, the punters retained faith. They sent him off the 11/10 favourite, and Willie Mullins’ horse duly rewarded that faith, quickening up smartly for Paul Townend and staying on well to beat Ashdale Bob by just over a length.

And Honeysuckle did what Honeysuckle does in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle on Friday. Henry de Bromhead’s mare drank in the adulation that resonated around the parade ring beforehand and onto the racecourse, and she returned to a rousing reception after winning again.

Kenny Alexander’s mare’s record is quite incredible: 16 for 16, 17 for 17 if you include her point-to-point. And she has been ridden to all of those 16 victories under Rules by Rachael Blackmore. Together they are box office, together they have gone four seasons unbeaten.

2. Potential stars shine brightly

paul-townend-and-willie-mullins-celebrate-winning-with-state-man-and-the-winning-connections Willie Mullins and Paul Townend celebrate with State Man and the winning connections. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The novices shone too at Punchestown, and among them are potential challengers to Honeysuckle’s reign. Some 35 minutes after Honeysuckle won the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, State Man danced in in the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle.

Willie Mullins’ horse won the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, but he held entries in the Grade 1 novice hurdles until the 11th hour. He got his opportunity at Grade 1 level on Friday, and he duly delivered, coming clear of his rivals from the final flight to win readily.

The Alanna Homes Champion Hurdle is run over two and a half miles, but State Man also has two-mile pace, as he proved in the County Hurdle, and he is no better than 8/1 now for next year’s Champion Hurdle.

Vauban is no better than 7/1 now for the same race, after he beat his old rival Fil Dor again in the Ballymore Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle on Saturday. Winner of the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown in February and of the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Willie Mullins’ horse is undisputedly the best juvenile hurdler of the season.

It can be difficult for the juveniles, when they step up into open companion the following season. The reality check can halt their forward march. It’s minor to senior, and it’s not a coincidence that only two five-year-olds have won the Champion Hurdle since See You Then won it in 1985. That said, Vauban looks like an exceptional juvenile hurdler, and it may be that he will be able to hold his own in the senior ranks.

The Nice Guy consolidated his position as the top staying novice hurdler of the season when he won the Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle on Wednesday. Malcolm Denmark’s horse surprised a few people when he won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, staying on well to get the better of his better-fancied stable companion Minella Cocooner. But he proved that there was no fluke about that victory when he again stayed on strongly to beat the same rival on Wednesday.

The Fame And Glory gelding is now unbeaten in five: two bumpers and now three hurdle races, including two Grade 1s. He reportedly doesn’t impress at home, but he really does impress on the racecourse, and he could be an exciting staying novice chaser next season, if that is the route that connections choose for him.

Capodanno was an exciting staying novice chaser at the start of this season, and he delivered on that potential, rounding off his campaign with an authoritative performance in the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase on Tuesday.

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Prominent from early, JP McManus’ horse came clear of his rivals on the run to the second last fence, and he stayed on powerfully over the last and up the run-in to maintain a healthy advantage over his rivals. Still only six, he could progress to take a high rank among the top staying chasers next season.

3. Future promise

robbie-power-onboard-magic-daze-comes-home-to-win Robbie Power onboard Magic Daze. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Away from the Grade 1 contests, there were many other performances that are worthy of note. The performance that Magic Daze put up in winning the two-mile handicap chase on Thursday was one. Robbie Power – who was riding the 665th and final winner of his stellar career in the saddle – quickly had the Robcour mare into her racing rhythm in front, her jumping was sharp and accurate, and she kept on well to win nicely.

This was Henry de Bromhead’s mare’s first run in a handicap, and she appeared to appreciate the drop down from Grade 1 level. The handicapper raised her by 7lb for Thursday’s performance to a mark of 142, but she still has the potential to go beyond that mark next season.

El Barra won the novices’ handicap chase that Asterion Forlonge won last year, the one that Kemboy won in 2018, under a fine front-running ride by champion conditional rider Jack Foley.

Susannah Ricci’s horse is eight years old now, but he has raced just five times over fences, he saw out the two-mile-five-furlong trip well, and he could progress again next season.

The Model Kingdom quickened up nicely off a sedate early pace to land the Grade 3 mares’ bumper on Wednesday. Noel Meade’s mare hadn’t run since she won a listed mares’ bumper at Navan in November, but she showed no signs of rustiness. She always travelled well for Pat Taaffe, and she showed a fine turn of foot when the gap opened on the far side, hitting the front at the furlong marker and keeping on well. She is unbeaten now in three bumpers, and she will be very interesting if she goes over hurdles next season.

There were other high-class performances, like Mighty Potter’s and Facile Vega’s and Blue Lord’s and Marie’s Rock’s, and there were battles that oscillated, like Billaway v Vaucelet, like Crosshill v Classic Getaway v Fils D’Oudairies. There were also beaten horses who will be of interest next time, like Saint Sam and Tax For Max and Ashdale Bob and Passing Well. But they’re all for the sequels.

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About the author:

Donn McClean

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