A stupendous catalogue of some of jump racing’s most lustrous talents feature as the entries for the Punchestown Festival’s 12 Grade 1 races are released today.
Anticipation is building for what is being billed as ‘The Great Comeback’ as the five-day Punchestown Festival gets under way on Tuesday, April 26 and continues right through to Saturday, April 30.
Quality is the watchword throughout all the categories, as a host of previous Grade 1 winners, Cheltenham and Aintree victors, elite champions and stars of the future eye the Punchestown Festival to bring the curtain down on another thrilling season of jumps racing.
The dream heavyweight clash between record-breaking champion, dual Champion Hurdle winner and 2021 PADDY POWER CHAMPION HURDLE victor Honeysuckle and the pretender to her throne, Constitution Hill is still in the pipeline.
The eye is drawn to a host of delectable treats right through the five-day carnival but the prospect of HoneyHill unfolding at such an arena and with so much at stake has the entire racing world on tenterhooks.
The Friday, April 29 feature has attracted ten entries in total, with Henderson also opting to give an entry to Epatante, Honeysuckle’s predecessor as Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winner, who chased her home in March before recording an impressive triumph in the Aintree Hurdle on Saturday.
Gordon Elliott has entered Teahupoo and Zanahiyr. The former disappointed in the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle when hotly fancied, Zanahiyr was a brave third before falling at the last flight in the Aintree Hurdle when still in contention.
Elliott has enjoyed a very strong campaign, with five domestic Grade 1s, two Cheltenham successes and then Saturday’s stunning Grade 1 double at Aintree, on the same day that Delta Work finished third in the Grand National.
He has many fond memories of the Punchestown Festival and emphasises it as a high priority in his year.
“We’ve made entries for all the Grade 1 races at Punchestown and we will be well represented throughout the week,” said Elliott.
“It’s our season-ending Festival in Ireland and a fantastic five days. We’ve had a bit of luck there in the past and hopefully we can finish the season off with a high. It’s where my owners want to have runners and it’s where I want to have runners.
“We had two winners at Cheltenham and two Grade 1 winners at Aintree and the horses have been running well. We haven’t always had the best of luck in the last few weeks but a lot of the horses that weren’t winning were hitting the crossbar and finishing second so it was brilliant to have the couple of big winners at Aintree and see Delta Work and Escaria Ten run so well in the National itself.
“We’ve had some great days at Punchestown. It’s a brilliant place and they’ve a great team there on the track and behind the scenes and they provide beautiful ground which is so important at this time of year.
“My memories of Punchestown go way back. I won the Grade 1 Champion Bumper there on King’s Road in 1998 for Nigel Twiston-Davies. For me to win a Grade 1 as a jockey was a brilliant thrill and that was another great day… that wasn’t today or yesterday though!
“We won the race with Fayonagh then in 2017 when she did the Cheltenham/Punchestown double which was another great day. She was a special mare.
“I’ll never forget the day Don Cossack won the Punchestown Gold Cup there in 2015. I had made no secret of how much I thought of Don Cossack and he showed how tough and talented he was that day after being third at Cheltenham and winning at Aintree he still came back and put up one of his best performances to date to win at Punchestown.”
Three Stripe Life was among Elliott’s Liverpool leviathans and the six-year-old is included a stellar line-up in Friday’s other Grade 1, the ALANNA HOMES CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE, where he could be joined by Minella Crooner, who is also among the IRISH MIRROR NOVICE HURDLE entries.
“I’d hope to have a runner in each of the novice hurdles. Three Stripe Life was brilliant at Aintree and will go over fences next season so he might take in Punchestown but again, he’ll tell us over the next few days. He’s a horse to really look forward to next season.
“Minella Crooner has options of the Alanna Homes and the Irish Mirror Novice Hurdles. It was disappointing that he picked up a setback just before Cheltenham but it was very minor. We were just forced to miss a few days with him at the wrong time but he’ll go to Punchestown fresh now and I’ve been happy with him in the last couple of weeks and I’m looking forward to getting him back out.”
Sir Gerhard denied Three Stripe Life at Grade 1 level at the Dublin Racing Festival and Cheltenham and he is also included in the entries for the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle. Other top-tier victors from the Willie Mullins yard, The Nice Guy and Minella Cocooner could also line up, while Aintree Grade 1 winner Jonbon is another possibility to represent Nicky Henderson and champion owner, JP McManus.
The Punchestown Festival kicks into gear on Tuesday, April 26 with three Grade 1s, the BECTIVE STUD CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE starting it all off. Constitution Hill, Sir Gerhard, Three Stripe Life and Jonbon hold entries in this contest too, while County Hurdle winner State Man would be an intriguing contender.
Three Stripe Life’s fellow Cullentra inmate, Mighty Potter got the better of him in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas but will be on the redemption trail after being pulled up in the Supreme at Cheltenham.
“Mighty Potter didn’t run his race at Cheltenham but has come home well and he’ll definitely go to Punchestown and I’d love to have a big winner there for his owners, Andrew and Gemma Brown.
“We also have Fil Dor for them as well and he’ll go for the BALLYMORE CHAMPION FOUR-YEAR-OLD HURDLE on the Saturday. He has to try turn the tables with Vauban, who beat him at Cheltenham and the Dublin Racing Festival but we’ll give it a go. Punchestown is a different type of test and if he can run his race we’d be delighted.”
Tuesday’s other Grade 1s include the DOOLEY INSURANCE CHAMPION NOVICE CHASE and WILLIAM HILL CHAMPION CHASE.
The latter may only have attracted seven entries but it offers the likelihood of the Cheltenham champion Energumene resuming rivalries with his Closutton stablemate Chacun Pour Soi, who came a cropper five out at Prestbury Park and has a fantastic Punchestown Festival record. Another stablemate, Ryanair Chase winner Allaho is also included, along with the Joseph O’Brien-trained Aintree Grade 1 winner Fakir D’oudairies.
Meanwhile, the DOOLEY INSURANCE NOVICE CHAMPION CHASE offers the possibility of a fantastic rematch between Galopin Des Champs and Bob Olinger, with the former having fallen at the last with the Turners Novice Chase at his mercy. Bob Olinger picked up the pieces but was reported afterwards by trainer Henry de Bromhead to have suffered a muscle injury.
There are three more Grade 1 prizes up for grabs on Wednesday, April 27, the most sumptuous dish on the menu perhaps being the LADBROKES PUNCHESTOWN GOLD CUP, which features the Paul Nicholls-trained defending champion, Clan Des Obeaux attempting a remarkable ‘Double Double’, having repeated his Betway Bowl success of 12 months ago at Aintree last week. His bold, front-running effort in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup last year was one of the highlights of the entire week.
Dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Al Boum Photo was a length-and-a-half second on that occasion is likely to be back in the fray, as is his Cheltenham successor Minella Indo, who finished second in this year’s renewal to stablemate, A Plus Tard.
Another Grade 1-winning chaser set to take part is the Gordon Elliott-prepped Galvin, who finished just two and a half lengths behind Minella Indo in fourth last month. Elliott has also given an entry to Delta Work, who followed his Cross-Country Chase defeat of Tiger Roll with a very brave run in Saturday’s Grand National.
“Galvin is in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup and hopefully he’ll go there,” Elliott revealed.
“He kept answering every call for us this season and earned his crack at the Gold Cup. He ran well, he finished fourth and if we can freshen him up and get him back to Punchestown in good order he has some very solid form and it would be nice to give him another go at a race like that before he goes on his summer holidays. Delta Work has probably done enough for the season but we’ll have a chat with Michael and Eddie. They are very sporting in how they make their entries and they’ll let the horse tell us how he is closer to the time.”
The RACE & STAY AT PUNCHESTOWN INH FLAT RACE offers the possibility of another interesting reunion in the form of exciting Cheltenham Champion Bumper Facile Vega and American Mike, who was a valiant runner-up.
Sire Du Berlais put up a career best performance in claiming the scalp of dual Stayers’ Hurdle hero Flooring Porter at Aintree on Saturday and Elliott will see how JP McManus’s two-time Cheltenham Festival winner recovers from those exertions before deciding whether he takes on the likes of his Coral Cup-winning stablemate Commander Of Fleet, as well as Klassical Dream, Thyme Hill and the Emma Lavelle-trained former champion stayer, Paisley Park in the LADBROKES CHAMPION STAYERS HURDLE on Thursday, April 28.
“Sire Du Berlais probably did surprise me a small bit but he had the form to put up that type of performance and it was great to get him back to that,” Elliott enthused.
“He beat a very good horse in Flooring Porter and we were delighted. He is in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers at Punchestown and we’ll just see how he comes home from Liverpool over the next few days and I’ll speak with JP McManus and Frank Berry and we’ll see what we do.
“We’ve got Commander Of Fleet in there as well and he deserves to take his chance after Cheltenham. He is a horse we’ve always liked and he was good and tough in Cheltenham and is on the ticket for Punchestown.”
Gentleman De Mee lowered the colours of Arkle Chase winner Edwardstone in Aintree last week and he heads a seven-strong Willie Mullins team in the BARBERSTOWN CASTLE NOVICE CHASE that also includes Dublin Racing Festival Grade 1 winner, Blue Lord as well as Gavin Cromwell’s Arkle runner-up Gabynako, who finished just ahead of Blue Lord at Cheltenham.
A fantastic feast concludes on Saturday, April 30, with two Grade 1s. The second of those is the aforementioned Ballymore Champion Four-Year-old Hurdle, while Nicky Henderson includes Epatante as well as Cheltenham Mares’ Hurdle winner Marie’s Rock in the COOLMORE IRISH EBF MARES’ CHAMPION HURDLE.