Many Cheltenham heroes head for Punchestown
A brilliant set of Grade 1 entries are unveiled today for the 2017 Punchestown Festival, running from Tuesday to Saturday, April 25 to 29 and this year boasting record prize money of over €2.9 million.
No less than 12 of the 15 Grade 1 and 2 winners from the Cheltenham Festival have been given entries for Punchestown with many of the big-race heroes from Aintree also engaged.
One of the clashes of the season is set for the second day - Wednesday, April 26 - when the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John is set to meet the 2015 winner Coneygree in the €250,000 Grade 1 CORAL PUNCHESTOWN GOLD CUP.
Trainer Mark Bradstock gave Coneygree a school around Ffos Las yesterday in preparation for the big race while Jessica Harrington reports that her charge Sizing John is all set.
"Sizing John is in great order and he's on target for the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup," said Harrington. "He's just been hacking about the place since Cheltenham and he doesn't need to do much as we've got two weeks until the race.
"He'll canter over the coming few days and do a bit of work later in the week and another next week and that should him put spot on. I see that Coneygree is coming and it should be a great race.
"He has a very relaxed way of jumping and I don't think he missed a beat the whole way around Cheltenham."
Sizing John paraded through Harrington's home town of Moone in Co Kildare following his Cheltenham victory and she admits it will be a treasured moment to run her stable star at her local course, a track with which the trainer has a lifelong association.
"Punchestown is very, very special to me so it's lovely to be bringing Sizing John there," she added. "I have been going ever since I was a child, we had picnics at the double banks at the far end - long before we were allowed into the enclosures! It's always a fun place and we'll look forward to the race."
But it is far from a two-horse race and the contest could play its part in the exciting battle for the Irish trainers' title with Gordon Elliott - bidding for a first championship - currently around €350,000 ahead of 10-times victor Willie Mullins. The season finishes at the end of the Punchestown Festival.
Outlander is likely to represent Elliott in the 3m 1f race while Mullins' entries include stable stalwart Djakadam and intriguingly the mare Vroum Vroum Mag. Last year's winner Carlingford Lough could represent trainer John Kiely.
The Festival looks set to kick off on a bright note with the €250,000 Grade 1 BOYLESPORTS CHAMPION CHASE on Tuesday, April 25.
Un De Sceaux, winner of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, is expected to represent Mullins while Fox Norton, six-length winner of the Melling Chase at Aintree on Friday, could run for Colin Tizzard.
Special Tiara, winner of the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Cheltenham, is in the 2m contest while last year's victor, the Tom George-trained God's Own, and Aintree runner-up Sub Lieutenant are expected to line up. Improving Rock The World, winner of the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham, could also run.
The feature Grade 1 €250,000 LADBROKES CHAMPION STAYERS HURDLE on Thursday, April 27, promises to be another fabulous race.
The first three in Cheltenham's Grade 1 Stayers Hurdle - Nichols Canyon, Lil Rockerfeller and Unowhatimeanharry - are likely starters while trainer Warren Greatrex has kept last year's winner One Track Mind fresh ahead of another trip to Punchestown.
Superstar mare Annie Power could have her first start for over a year in the 3m contest while Saturday's Ryanair Liverpool Stayers Hurdle hero Yanworth is another entry. The Mullins team also includes Arctic Fire, winner of Cheltenham's County Hurdle on his last start.
Annie Power and Arctic Fire have also been given a two-mile option in the €250,000 Grade 1 BETDAQ PUNCHESTOWN CHAMPION HURDLE on Friday, April 28, in which Nicky Henderson expects to be double-handed.
Buveur D'Air, winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Aintree Hurdle, holds an entry although Henderson expects that it is more likely that he will be represented by My Tent Or Yours - runner-up in both those contests - and Brain Power.
The latter finished a below-par ninth in the Champion Hurdle, having won his two previous starts, and Henderson hopes for a better show at Punchestown in a race that owner Michael Buckley has been keen to target.
"It's definitely the plan to take Brain Power to Punchestown, we've aimed him there," said Henderson. "Michael has been away and wanted to wait for Punchestown so we have decided to do that. I have to say Brain Power was disappointing at Cheltenham and we hope for a better show at Punchestown.
"We could easily take My Tent Or Yours there as well. You have to admire him with the way he ran at Aintree after his good run at Cheltenham."
The Gordon Elliott-trained Labaik, winner of the Grade 1 Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, is another entered along with his stablemate Apple's Jade, who captured the Grade 1 OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Labaik has also been entered in the Grade 1 HERALD CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE on Tuesday, April 25. Others engaged in the two-mile event include a strong Mullins team including Let's Dance, winner of the Trull House Stud Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, and Supreme Novices' Hurdle runner-up Melon. Possible runners from Britain include the Nicky Henderson-trained mare Kayf Grace, Alan King's The Unit and Moon Racer from David Pipe's stable.
The Grade 1 IRISH DAILY MIRROR NOVICE HURDLE on Wednesday, April 26, could feature an intriguing clash between Penhill, winner of the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, and rapidly-improving Presenting Percy, who defied 11st 11lb to run away with the Pertemps Final at the same meeting. The three-mile contest has 37 entries so promises to be ultra-competitive.
There is an even bigger 51-strong entry for the 2m 4f Grade 1 TATTERSALLS IRELAND CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE on Friday, April 28, including the Colin Tizzard-trained Finian's Oscar, who could travel to Punchestown following his success in Saturday's Grade 1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree.
Exciting mare The Nipper is set to represent trainer Warren Greatrex while there is superb home team including the aforementioned Labaik, Let's Dance, Melon and Penhill as well as Champagne Classic, winner of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham for Gordon Elliott.
Star females get a chance to shine on Saturday, April 29, in the Grade 1 IRISH STALLION FARMS EUROPEAN BREEDERS FUND MARES CHAMPION HURDLE. The likes of Annie Power, Apple's Jade, Let's Dance, and Vroum Vroum Mag are engaged as well as last year's winner Whiteout.
The top juveniles are on show the same day in the Grade 1 AES CHAMPION FOUR-YEAR-OLD HURDLE. The first five from Cheltenham's Triumph Hurdle - Defi Du Seuil, Mega Fortune, Bapaume, Ex Patriot and Landofhopeandglory - could all reoppose.
Meanwhile the fledgling staying chasing talent get a chance to shine in the Grade 1 GROWISE CHAMPION NOVICE CHASE over 3m 1f on Tuesday, April 25. The outstanding Yorkhill, winner of the Grade 1 JLT Novices' Chase, is a likely starter and could face fellow Cheltenham Festival winners Road To Respect and Tiger Roll. Harry Fry is expected to send the progressive American from Britain.
Yorkhill is also in the two-mile Grade 1 RYANAIR NOVICE CHASE on Thursday, April 27, in which the British entries include the Paul Nicholls-trained San Benedeto, winner of Saturday's Maghull Novices' Chase at Aintree. Third-placed Charbel and unlucky faller Politologue also have an entry.
Dick O'Sullivan, General Manager of Punchestown Racecourse, said:
"There was an amazing record of 19 Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham last month and we are delighted so many of them are set to reappear at the Punchestown Festival beginning on Tuesday, April 25. We are also thrilled to see a whole host of top performers from Britain among the entries."