A record opening day crowd of 19,459 (up from 18,605 in 2013) had Punchestown racecourse bouncing on the opening day of this year’s Festival, staged on a sun drenched day in County Kildare.
They witnessed the blossoming talent of Faugheen power clear of his rivals to land the Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles, and in doing so earn quotes ranging between 5/1 and 7/1 for the 2015 Champion Hurdle, while at the other end of the age scale the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for evergreen 12-year-old Sizing Europe, as he landed his second Punchestown Champion Chase, and Grade 1 win no.8 of his career!
Just before racing one especially astute and well known Irish racing journalist said to me: “Why would you rather be anywhere but here today on a day like this?”
I hear you my friend, and hopefully it’ll be more of the same at peerless Punchestown this afternoon on day two of the great spring jamboree, with five races live with us on RTE between 4.00pm and 6.55pm.
The feature is the Grade 1 Bibby Financial Services Ireland Punchestown Gold Cup run over 3m 1f at 5.30pm, a contest in which Willie Mullins is responsible for Aintree’s Melling Chase winner Boston Bob (the choice of Ruby Walsh) lining up alongside Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup runner up On His Own.
Both have obvious claims, but both are coming off the back of hard races (Boston Bob ran in both Cheltenham and Aintree) at the odds I’m keen to take them on with a horse who was right in the mix at the second last in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, and might have finished closer than sixth but for a mistake which ruined his momentum.
We’re talking about the Dessie Hughes-trained Lyreen Legend, a lightly raced seven year old only having his fourth run of the season, and who hails from a stable who have seen their recent runners performing with credit in the main (3 winners in the past fortnight).
This is what Hughes himself told the press yesterday: “He ran a hell of a race in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. He hit the second last, which knocked the wind out of him a bit, other than that we thought he would have been placed.”
“It was three miles and two at Cheltenham and it’s three miles and one at Cheltenham and that might just suit him better.”
Bear in mind the mighty display he put up to run second in the 2013 RSA Chase behind subsequent Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere, and the fact he’s been placed at previous Punchestown Festivals over both hurdles and fences, and there’s sufficient ammunition to suggest Lyreen Legend to can go close in today’s big race at a top price of 11/2 with either BetVictor or Paddy Power.
Elsewhere on the card, rarely does a Punchestown Festival elapse without the welcoming back of a winner for Somerset trainer Philip Hobbs, and the in-form handler has strong claims with former Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner Cheltenian in the winners of 0 or 1 Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle at 4.20pm.
A race open only to horses who are yet to score over hurdles or have won just the once over timber, he sets the standard with a rating of 141 earned off the back of a staying on fourth in the Betfair Hurdle, alongside a disappointing effort in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (in which he went off 5/1 favourite), plus a much improved fourth at Aintree.
This looks a great opportunity for him to bag win number two, and he holds a huge chance if Richard Johnson can get him settled in the early stages of his race.
Last but not least – the first race on the card is a brutal looking 25-runner handicap, but if you wanted something to have a pound each way on at daft odds, then try the Brendan Duke-trained Mister Benedictine at 40’s with BetVictor.
Said to be back in the form that saw him rack up three on the spin in the summer of 2012, he’ll love the Good ground and has won before after a long absence (hasn’t raced for 204 days).
Duke has his small string – prepared on the edge of the Curragh – in good form, winning with the Jim Bolger-owned Focussed at Tipperary a fortnight ago.
These things get lost in the sands of time, but Mister Benedictine would have been a strong fancy for the Galway Hurdle two years ago had he made the cut.
He’s 11 now, but the handicapper has given him a chance – Conor Brassil’s four pound claim means he’s two pounds below his last winning mark, and it might not be the biggest surprise if he made the frame at huge odds.
Wednesday’s best bets at Punchestown:
3.40 – Martinstown Opportunity Series Final Handicap Hurdle – 10 Mister Benedictine (each way) @ 40/1 (BetVictor)