A crisp winter day will turn to boiling point at Punchestown shortly before 2 pm on Sunday as the biggest field since 2007, and arguably the best ever goes to post for the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
The ten-runner contest is headed by odds-on favourite Envoi Allen, who returns to Grade 1 company for trainer Henry de Bromhead and the darling of Irish racing Rachael Blackmore, but the popular seven-year-old will face his toughest ever assignment on this occasion.
De Bromhead’s Aintree Grand National hero Minella Times will make his first public appearance of the season and is a plum spare ride for amateur Derek O’Connor.
The history-making Waterford trainer said of Minella Times: “He gets his season started and we’ll see how we go. He seems in great form and is ready to run.
“He’s been back in since August so we’re looking forward to getting him going now, with the obvious aim being a return to Aintree to defend his crown.”
While in the same colours as de Bromhead’s Envoi Allen, Cheveley Park’s emphatic Ryanair Chase winner Allaho will take aim with last year’s winning jockey Patrick Mullins aboard for his father Willie, who saddles seven.
2019 Punchestown Gold Cup winner Kemboy is the mount of Danny Mullins, while the Gold Cup-winning colours of the Donnelly family will be carried by Asterion Forlonge (Bryan Cooper) and Melon (Brian Hayes).
The champion trainer also gives Franco De Port, Janidil and Tornado Flyer their seasonal bows in Sunday’s feature, with Britain’s most successful female jockey, Bryony Frost an eye-catching booking for the former.
Fit and well from his Clonmel Oil Chase romp last month, Fakir D’oudairies adds heightened intrigue to the race in the first colours of owner JP McManus for Joseph O’Brien and Mark Walsh in what must be the race of the season so far for jump enthusiasts.
It could be another day to remember for red-hot jockey Bryan Cooper, who is looking to augment what has already been a memorable campaign with top-tier success on Asterion Forlonge.
The pair are returning to Punchestown having signed off last term with a 14-length blitzing of what looked a strong line-up in a Grade A novice handicap over the same trip at the end of April and Cooper is relishing the prospect.
“He’s a high-class horse who’s held in high regard in Closutton,” says Cooper. “He didn’t have the rub of the green earlier on in the season last year but things finished off on a high note and he couldn’t have been any more impressive.
“He’s back into Grade 1 company now and I’m looking forward to him. He won at the Punchestown Festival like a graded horse in handicap company so that would have done his confidence a world of good.
“Clearly Punchestown is a track he likes so going back there will suit him. He’s an exciting ride.”
The former Gold Cup-winning pilot also appears to have a good chance of success in the BetVictor Irish Racing Mares’ Novice Hurdle with the Gordon Elliott prepared Humble Glory.
It is clear that he is a man in demand again, having endured a fallow period before knuckling down to rebuild his career in commendable fashion, with 32 victories already this season.
“It was an exciting morning looking at the declarations. I’m trying to keep everybody happy and so grateful to be getting opportunities from everyone – from Gordon, Willie, the Nolans, Noel Meade, everyone. It’s not easy keep everyone happy but it’s a great position to be in.
“It’s great to be getting the opportunities but you have to be seen to be making the most of them as well, so you just keep working hard but it would be very special to win on John Durkan day at Punchestown, better again if we could win the big one.”
Cooper paid tribute to the Paul Nolan-trained Latest Exhibition, who he credited with kickstarting his renaissance as a Grade 1 winner and regular competitor at the highest level before suffering a fatal injury last weekend.
“Latest Exhibition came along at a very important time in my career. He really helped me to get back on the big stage.
“It was sickening what happened to him and we’ll miss him. They’re horses of a lifetime and you don’t come across them every week.”
Racegoers at Punchestown on Sunday will get to see a fascinating renewal of the BetVictor Beginners Chase also, as Grade 1 Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow will have his first start since beating Bob Olinger in a maiden hurdle in November 2020 on what is set to be a massive day for the gelding’s owners, Cheveley Park Stud.
The first of an eight race card goes to post at the earlier time of 11.55 am. Racegoers are reminded that gates open at 10.30 am and to allow additional time for the Covid compliance access system.