The 2017 Punchestown Festival provided a scintillating finale to the Irish jumps season with some sensationally close finishes. There was also a closely fought battle between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins for the title of champion trainer that added spice to proceedings.
Elliott started the week €400,000 ahead of Mullins with his hand strengthened by a major influx of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud horses that had been moved from Mullins. Meanwhile Closutton’s season had been blighted not only by that exodus but by the loss of some of their star performers to injury.
Day 1 Tuesday: Un De Sceaux beaten by Fox Norton in Champion Chase
Tuesday 27 April was a good day for the bookies with only two winning favourites. Enniskillen (6/4) delivered for his followers in the opener, the Sean Breen Memorial Chase for Peter Maher under a typically professional ride by Irish champion amateur Jamie Codd. Much later in the day the six-year-old Disko (13/8) was an impressive winner of the Champion Novice Chase for Gigginstown and trainer Noel Meade. He beat Tony Martin’s Anibale Fly (3/1) so impressively that he went into many notebooks as a Gold Cup horse in waiting.
In the Champion Novice Hurdle Willie Mullins’ Cilaos Emery (8/1) was the bookies’ saviour. Ridden by David Mullins he beat his stablemate Melon, the 5/4 favourite partnered by Ruby Walsh, a length. Elliott’s surprise Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Labaik (5/2) reverted to type and refused to jump off for ages under Jack Kennedy and inevitably finished a very distant last.
Walsh looked likely to go one better on his runaway Cheltenham winner, Un De Sceaux (10/11F) in the Champion Chase only to get robbed on the run in by Colin Tizzard’s raider, Fox Norton (5/2) and Robbie Power. The longest priced winner of the day was Elliott’s Roaring Bull at 25/1 in the Dooley Insurances Flat Race, providing his pre-training helper Lisa O’Neill with a victory to follow up her Cheltenham success.
Day 2 Wednesday: Sizing John Wins Third Gold Cup for Harrington
Wednesday’s feature race was the Punchestown Gold Cup. The 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree (6/1) had been unable to defend his title after a setback but took the lead from flagfall, setting a strong pace and jumping like a stag under Nico De Boinville for the Bradstocks. His only fencing error was two from home helping his closest pursuers, Jessie Harrington’s Sizing John (9/10F) and Mullins’ Djakadam (5/2) to close. They momentarily headed Coneygree but he rallied bravely and the trio jumped the last in unison.
Djakadam seemed to be travelling best but stumbled on landing giving Sizing John an opportunity that Robbie Power seized with verve. As Coneygree could find no more Walsh and Power were neck and neck, all out to the line, it took a photograph to separate them. Sizing John won by a short head giving Harrington her third Gold Cup in as many months with him, a sequence initiated in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. It also landed some fancy enhanced odds prices about the winning favourite for punters who took those free bets as compensation for signing up with a new bookie. The fragile Coneygree finished a length and a half behind them in third, beaten but still a brilliant talent.
It was a frustrating result for Walsh who had already taken the runner-up’s spot twice. In the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle he rode the 6/4 favourite, Battleford, but was beaten by his stablemate, C’est Jersey (7/1) and Paul Townend. In the subsequent Grade 1 Novice Hurdle Walsh was denied victory on Penhill, the Albert Bartlett winner and 2/1 favourite, by Elliott’s Champagne Classic (14/1). Michael O’Leary memorably described Champagne Classic as the worst horse that he owned after he won a handicap hurdle for him at Cheltenham. Elliott also saddled the winner of the Champion I N H Flat Race, Fayonagh, the 11/8 favourite ridden by Jamie Codd.
British horses staged a successful raid in the Guinness Handicap Chase. Tizzard saddled the 14/1 winner Sizing Granite and the second placed Viconte De Noyer (25/1) for Alan and Ann Potts, owners of Sizing John. The Rebecca Curtis-trained Irish Cavalier (12/1) took third whilst the 7/4 favourite Polidam, ridden by Walsh for Mullins, made a couple of bad fencing errors and ran no race at all.
Day 3 Thursday: Unowhatimeanharry Rebounds in Champion Stayers’ Hurdle
On Thursday Harrington continued her eye-catching run of form saddling the first two winners. The appropriately named Bobabout (8/1) got his head down on the line in the JLT Handicap Hurdle to win by a nose whilst Don’t Touch It (5/1) took the Nick Coen Memorial Handicap Chase by a more easily discernible half length.
Another exciting finish delivered a major upset in the Cross Country Chase when Shay Slevin’s Treo Eile (10/1) had the audacity to beat the 8/11 favourite, Enda Bolger’s Cantlow. Four mile plus races are not usually won by a head. The bookmakers were probably forming a queue to buy the veteran winning jockey, Barry Cash, a drink afterwards.
The Champion Stayers’ Hurdle was the feature race with Nichols Canyon, the 7/4 favourite for Mullins and Walsh, expected to back up his surprise Cheltenham win. On the slightly softer ground Harry Fry’s Unowhatimeanharry (4/1) reasserted himself for JP McManus in another nail-biter to win by a head under Noel Fehily. Fry and Fehily followed up with a victory in the next race, the Shamrock Enterprises Handicap Hurdle with the 7/1 joint favourite Minella Awards.
Mullins’ 9/10 favourite Great Field won the second Grade 1 of the day, the Ryanair Novice Chase, under his regular pilot Jody McGarvey. McGarvey did not let a slightly slipped saddle spoil things and won easily, beating Henry De Bromhead’s Ordinary World (7/1) 11 lengths.
Walsh scored for his boss in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle on the 13/8 favourite Asthuria but Mullins’ strongly fancied Next Destination, the 4/5 favourite in the Kildare Post Flat Race ridden by his son Patrick, was denied by Neil Mulholland’s Dead Right (8/1).
Day 4 Friday: Wicklow Brave Unstoppable in Champion Hurdle
The Punchestown Champion Hurdle was the highlight on Friday in more ways than one, but not for punters. Mullins saddled the first two in the betting market, Vroum Vroum Mag (6/4) partnered by Walsh and the surprise Cheltenham County Handicap Hurdle winner Arctic Fire (9/2). He also sent out Diakali (8/1) and the quirky Irish St Leger winner Wicklow Brave (12/1) equipped with blinkers for the first time ridden by his son Patrick.
Elliott’s main hope of pocketing the biggest prize of the day rested with the reluctant Labaik (11/2) who had disgraced himself on Tuesday, his other runner Tombstone (25/1) looked unlikely to feature. Davy Russell was given the job of getting Labaik going but Elliott typically left nothing to chance and went down to the start himself. He received a caution for ‘shaking a hand held item’ to encourage Labaik to jump off.
Elliott’s intervention worked well on Labaik but Wicklow Brave politely said ‘after you’ and gave the field a head start despite Patrick’s urgings with the persuader. At least he moved eventually, Diakali refused to get anywhere near the starting point and was withdrawn so that the race could get underway.
Unlike Wicklow Brave, Identity Thief (33/1) set off like a scalded cat and jumped the first 20 lengths ahead of him. Once he got moving Wicklow Brave easily caught up with the field and, hurdling with exceptional fluency, was sharing the lead by the fourth. He then decided to cart Patrick into a substantial lead but kept going with purpose and although ‘running on fumes’ by the last, held on. He beat Nicky Henderson’s closing My Tent Or Yours (8/1) a length and a half with Arctic Fire a neck further back in third leaving Labaik to take fourth. Vroum Vroum Mag finished out of the money, pulling up lame behind.
Patrick Mullins admitted that he was ‘run away with’ and was overjoyed to put €147,500 into the Mullins training championship pot. In the next race, the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle, he rode Bacardys (10/1) to victory by a short head in more conventional style. He beat Tizzard’s 13/8 favourite, Finian’s Oscar, adding a further €59,000 to Mullins’ total.
Patrick also won the much less valuable Donohue Marquees Novice Hurdle to score a memorable hat trick on Montalbano (11/4), beating Walsh on Riven Light, the 2/1 favourite, by a neck. The bookies were probably offering to buy Patrick a drink too.
Day 5 Saturday: Apple’s Jade Awesome in Mares’ Champion Hurdle
There were three prizes of €59,000 on offer on the final day. Apple’s Jade, the evens favourite, demonstrated her immense superiority over her rivals in the first of them. She won the Mares’ Champion Hurdle by a devastating 14 lengths from the front under Bryan Cooper for Gigginstown and Elliott. Mullins took the next four places with Airlie Beach (16/1), Karalee (11/4), Whiteout (20/1) and Augusta Kate (7/2) respectively, pocketing a useful total of €40,000.
The next race offering the same prize was the Grade 1 Four Year Old Hurdle and the punters were happy again when Walsh won it on the 2/1 favourite Bapaume for Mullins and the Riccis. He beat Joseph O’Brien’s Landofhopeandglory (4/1) just over a length but always looked to be in command.
The Ballymore Handicap Hurdle was the third race with a substantial prize and the four 8/1 co favourites included Bonbon Au Miel for Walsh and Mullins, Oscar Sam for Harrington and Power and Air Horse One for Harry Fry and Niall Madden. None of them was there when it mattered and Patrick Mullins triumphed on the 20/1 outsider Open Eagle for his father. It was another good day for the bookies with only two favourites coming in.
Apple’s Jade’s sensational effort in the Mares Champion Hurdle was not enough to secure the trainers’ championship for Elliott. Patrick Mullins’ hat trick on Friday ultimately proved decisive as his father ended up almost €200,000 ahead, having gone into the week €400,000 behind. It was yet another (eleventh) championship for Willie but his son’s unexpected late contribution made this one count unlike any other.