This week’s superb Punchestown Festival that starts on Tuesday will be the venue for what could be a tremendous tussle for the title of champion Irish jumps trainer, a crown held for the last 10 years by the remarkable Willie Mullins (pictured above).
But going into this final week of the season Mullins has it all to do to hold the increasingly powerful Gordon Elliott at bay. The young pretender has enjoyed a stunning campaign that has included a host of major prizes and a remarkable eight wins at last month’s Cheltenham Festival. He recently pressed home his advantage by winning both the Irish National with General Principle, and the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree with the remarkable Tiger Roll, both horses owned by his chief patron Michael O’Leary of the Gigginstown House Stud. O’Leary, also boss of Ryanair, famously took a massive 60 horses away from Mullins the season before last and transferred them to Elliott.
Those two big National successes have catapulted Elliott over half a million euros clear of Mullins who needs to sweep up most of this week’s big races if he is to retain his title. Elliott is 8/11 with Paddy Power to hold on, while Mullins is a best priced 5/4 with William Hill to produce a stunning comeback, much as he did when retaining his title on the final day of last season at Elliott’s expense.
Make no mistake, Mullins is not giving up his title without a fight and there could be many a twist and turn before the last race of the Irish season is run on Saturday afternoon.
Blue Going For Gold on Opening Day
Mullins will be hoping to land the first big race of the meeting on Tuesday when his Getabird bids for the Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle having won nicely at Fairyhouse last time. Getabird finished only 11th though in the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham last month (see video below), a race in which Elliott’s Mengli Khan finished a close third to Summerville Boy, with PALOMA BLUE (5/1 with William Hill), trained by Henry de Bromhead, just a length further back in fourth.
Paloma Blue may be the most likely of the three to appreciate the much better ground this time and it would not surprise if he were to spring a minor surprise on the two big yards in the hands of the excellent Davy Russell. He looks the value having gone close at this fixture last year on similar ground when runner-up in the Champion Bumper to the ill-fated Fayonagh.
It’s hard to see Mullins failing to land the opening day’s other big event, the Grade 1 Boylesports Champion Chase, but the question is, with which horse? So determined is the champion trainer to bid for a clean sweep of the prize money he has entered three of his star horses and seems prepared to let them fight it out for supremacy. It really is quite extraordinary to see star turns Douvan , Min, and Un De Sceaux potentially running all in the same race!
In view of the circumstances this looks more of a race to savour than to get involved in from a betting point of view. If Mullins fails to win this event, it’s fair to say his chance of retaining his crown may well be dead and buried.
Bellshill to Atone for Irish National Loss
Elliott looks up against it in Wednesday’s big race, the Grade 1 Punchestown Gold Cup, in which his best chance appears to lie with 16/1 shot Outlander. Mullins, on the other hand, may choose between Bellshill, Djakadam, Killultagh Vic and even Total Recall. Cheltenham Gold Cup fourth Road To Respect, trained by Noel Meade, is the current market leader at 5/2.
Mullins’ BELLSHILL (5/1 with 888sport) was beaten just a length under a big weight in the Irish National at Fairyhouse three weeks ago (see video below) in an extraordinary blanket finish on bad ground having looked all over the winner going to the last. He has won twice before at this fixture and on the anticipated better ground rates the recommendation.
Thursday looks set to be another big day for Mullins as his recent Cheltenham Festival Stayers’ Hurdle hero Penhill bids to follow up in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle, while the unbeaten novice chaser Footpad will be odds-on to add another Grade 1 to his collection in the Ryanair Novice Chase.
By the time we reach Friday’s fourth day of the meeting Mullins may well have closed the gap on Elliott, but Elliott has an ace up his sleeve in the formidable shape of top-class novice hurdler Samcro, who could bid for the Grade 1 Punchestown Champion Hurdle. He retained his unbeaten record with a fine win in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (see video below), and his handler may feel he has to let his star youngster step up and mix it with Mullins’ Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon, and other big names such as Jessie Harrington’s Supasundae, and Nicky Henderson’s grand veteran My Tent Or Yours.
If he doesn’t take on the more experienced horses, Samcro will surely start favourite for the Grade 1 Profile Systems Champion Novice Hurdle later in the day, but that race carries 175,000 euros less prize money than the main event.
Elliott’s Apple’s Jade was beaten at odds-on in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham by Mullins’ Benie Des Deux and the pair could meet again in Saturday’s Grade 1 Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle, by which point every euro could well prove priceless. Elliott’s Farclas beat Mullins’ Mister Adjudicator by nearly two lengths in the Triumph Hurdle last month and they too could renew rivalry in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, while Mullins’ Stormy Ireland, who fell at the last when still in with a squeak, may be asked to try again against the first two home that day.
All in all it promises to be a rollercoaster ride of a week at the Punchestown Festival for supporters of both the big two trainers. May the best man win, but we will rely on Paloma Blue and Bellshill as our two main bets of the week.
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.