Punchestown, deep in rural Kildare.
Weaving your way through the lanes from the buzzing town of Naas, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all that lies beyond are fields, farms, sheep, and the occasional hospitable pub, but locate Beggar’s Cross and you’re just a short stagger from one of the great success stories.
For 51 weeks of the year the peace is largely undisturbed in this lush, green, beautiful part of Ireland.
Not so for five days this week, as during the five days of ‘peerless Punchestown’ and its great National Hunt Festival around 110,000 people are expected to cross the threshold, to experience the magic generated by some top class sport.
It’s a great welcome, bolstered by 12 Grade 1’s, eye-watering prize money that not even Willie Mullins has remarked upon (yet), playing out in a stunning setting.
The Irish contingent rave about the natural amphitheatre at Cheltenham, surely this place is every inch as good?
Whatever your opinion on that score we go steaming into today’s second instalment looking at another excellent card, one which features the venue’s biggest prize in the shape of the Bibby Financial Services Punchestown Gold Cup, a contest of immense prestige which carries of chunky €200,000 prize pot.
Cheltenham hero Coneygree may have hung up his boots for the summer, and Grand National winner Many Clouds is resting his hooves after Aintree, but nonetheless they’ve attracted a cast of stars from both sides of the Irish Sea.
Willie Mullins cleaned up yesterday, winning all three Grade 1’s on the opening day courtesy of Douvan, Felix Yonger and Valseur Lido, and he supplies a third of the field of nine.
Ruby Walsh stays loyal to Djakadam following his gallant second to Coneygree, though morning rain would be welcome.
Last year’s winner of this race Boston Bob is working hard to recapture that sort of form, while the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup bridesmaid On His Own is another capable of high class form when the mood takes him.
Gordon Elliott got on the scoreboard for the week good and early yesterday, notching an impressive winner with well backed Goffs Land Rover Bumper scorer Petit Mouchoir.
Here he supplies a live wire in the 171-rated Don Cossack, but will he blow a fuse when asked to see out today’s 3m 1f journey?
So impressive when routing his rivals at Aintree over two and a half miles 19 days ago, he has won his last two over fences here at Punchestown, but still has to prove his stamina.
If there isn’t enough petrol in the tank then a strong British challenge arrives in the shape of richly talented Cue Card, the horse who chased Don Cossack home in a distant second in Liverpool earlier this month, and also David Pipe’s Ballynagour, who ran a mighty race in defeat over two miles here a year ago, and most recently was seen putting it up to Silviniaco Conti at Aintree three weeks ago.
Perhaps the one thing that really catches the eye though is the decision of Bryan Cooper, retained jockey to the powerful Gigginstown House Stud, to overlook Don Cossack and instead partner Road To Riches.
The pair both arrive off the back of superb performances, Don Cossack lest we forget powering home at Aintree over a lesser distance, while Road To Riches lost Gold Cup second in the shadow of the post at Cheltenham, overhauled by the reopposing Djakadam as his petrol light finally flickered on empty after a valiant effort.
Here though, over a furlong and a half shorter trip, Cooper may have made the correct pick.
Road To Riches has been a remarkable success story, winning the Galway Plate last summer when sent off at a whopping 14/1 from a handicap mark of 149 – in hindsight one of the greatest certainties you’ll ever encounter!
Since then he’s won nothing but admirers, winning Grade 1 contests with swagger at both Down Royal and Leopardstown.
His Cheltenham effort was nothing short of excellent, and as long as it hasn’t left too much of a mark and he’s ready to go again then Cooper can blow a sigh of relief, and we can get on at 7/2 with Paddy Power.
There’s also Grade 1 action in store at 4.55pm with the three mile Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle, in which Willie Mullins once again supplies a hot favourite in Fairyhouse scorer Shaneshill.
Second to Douvan at Cheltenham, he has class in abundance, but he’s yet to tackle today’s extended distance.
Stablemate Killultagh Vic comes here with applause still ringing in his ears after a gutsy handicap win at Cheltenham, though he too has to prove that he won’t need to hail a taxi to reach the three mile summit.
Likely to be trying to expose any stamina limitations in the intrepid Mullins duo is Gordon Elliott’s No More Heroes, for whom three miles holds not a whiff of fear, as demonstrated by his excellent third in Cheltenham’s Albert Bartlett.
Dorset trainer Colin Tizzard got a pleasant surprise when upping Thistlecrack to this trip at Aintree – a 25/1 win in the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle was the end result!
Joining him on the ferry was Harry Fry’s Fletchers Flyer, and having been spared the rigours of either Cheltenham or Aintree it’s the fresher horse who can prevail today.
Fry brought this lad over to win a bumper here 12 months ago, so he’s proven on the track, and is subsequently tested and well within range for today’s stamina-sapping examination.
Commanding victories at Ascot and Wincanton over the winter marked him down as a horse going places, and he went down fighting when second in a good three miler at Haydock in February.
A 74-day break is an advantage his rivals don’t have, and Fry won’t have brought him over simply for a breath of fresh air.
Flethchers Flyer is 14/1 each way with Paddy Power.
Wednesday’s best bets at Punchestown:
4.55 – Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle – 4 Fletchers Flyer (each way) @ 14/1 (Paddy Power)
5.30 – Bibby Financial Services Punchestown Gold Cup – 8 Road To Riches (win) @ 7/2 (Paddy Power)