THE five-day Punchestown Festival brings the curtain down on the national hunt season with some mouth-watering clashes in prospect on the track.
Despite being out injured at present Paul Townend looks in pole position to claim a fourth Champion Jockey title. Townend currently leads Rachael Blackmore by eight winners (95-87) and is doing everything in his power to get back for racing next week after picking up a leg injury on Easter Sunday at Fairyhouse.
While the Tipperary woman has closed the gap by a couple she would need an extraordinary Punchestown to edge ahead of Townend even if he fails to make it back. However, his boss Willie Mullins is still giving the Lisgoold rider every chance to link up with his galaxy of stars next week.
In typical Willie Mullins fashion, he is leaving a final decision until declaration time on Sunday morning.
"He is going to have to have a protective boot made for the leg that is injured and I just said, ‘Get yourself ready and I’ll talk to you the morning we are doing declarations and we’ll see how he is'."
Looking ahead to the action on the track Mullins is readying for battle and will be taking on his great rival Henry De Bromhead with great relish.
Mullins said: “It looks like we will run Chacun Pour Soi and Allaho on the opening day of the meeting. At the moment I’m looking at the race for Allaho. I’d just like to see what he can do over two miles, he jumps so efficiently and so well, that is where my head is at the moment.
“I love horses that jump as quick as him and if you can jump that quick usually you can come back in trip a bit. I think Allaho has the jumping technique to jump with two milers and he gallops well enough, we all saw that in Cheltenham. It’s worth a craic I think, we’ve got to ask the question in Punchestown and then we will know where we want to go next year.”
Tuesday’s Grade 1 Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase has the potential to be a race for the ages with Envoi Allen and Monkfish likely to lock horns for the first time.
“Monkfish didn’t jump with the same flair that he jumped previously and he didn’t gallop with the same flair at Cheltenham but he’ll go for the three-mile race. Lots of people could say that Al Boum Photo’s run might have been good enough to win the last two Gold Cup’s and he just met two good horses on the day.
"I’m not saying he’d have won the Gold Cup but I thought he could have run better, maybe he didn’t fire as well as he has. Certainly, the last five jumps weren’t as strong as they were last year. He has worked well in the meantime and I’m happy with him where he is at the moment.”
While Townend and Mullins look set to collect the silverware in their relevant categories it has been a truly remarkable season for their chief rivals Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore. De Bromhead has won the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Gold Cup and put the icing on the cake by sending out the first and second in the Aintree Grand National.
While he is brilliant at deflecting attention from himself and heaping praise on Blackmore the Waterford trainer is finding it hard to keep in the background with the quality of horses in his yard.
De Bromhead said: “I was just getting my head around Cheltenham and then we went and won the National. They are the races you grow up watching and dream of having runners in. Everyone is sick of my superlatives and I’ve run out of things to say, it’s just brilliant.
“We’ve all watched the National again, but it’s just a busy time of year — we’re flat out. Hopefully, when things calm down after Punchestown we’ll be able to savour it even more, but the times we are in we’re not able to celebrate much but that is better for my liver anyhow. If it was a normal Cheltenham, I’m not sure if I’d have even seen Cheltenham”
De Bromhead will run most of his Cheltenham winners at Punchestown, including Gold Cup hero Minella Indo and the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle: “Minella Indo is really good, he’s so laid back. We backed off for a few days afterwards and he started getting chubby, but we started back with him again and he seems in great form and we’re happy with him.
Honeysuckle has the prospect of going chasing still in the background, but for now, her sights are fixed on the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle on Friday.
“She seems really good, came out of Cheltenham really well and we’re really excited about it and looking forward to the race. The fall of Envoi Allen at Cheltenham has been the only negative for the yard but he is on target for a mouth-watering clash with Monkfish in the aforementioned Champion Novice Chase on the opening day.
“He’s on course, he’s in great form and worked really well at the Curragh last week.”