The Punchestown festival took place this week despite the wildest of weather with most of the chase races re-scheduled for the weekend. Gales of 70mph plus monsoon rains must have given the groundstaff at the Kildare track nightmares but fair play to them for managing to still provide top drawer action.
Read on for a run down of some of the action plus a quick look back at Merigo’s win in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr last Saturday.
Hurricane leads Mullins whitewash
Hurricane Fly landed a Rabobank Champion Hurdle hat-trick at Punchestown as he led home a 1-2-3 for the Willie Mullins stable.
Ruby Walsh held up the former Cheltenham Festival hero in last for much of the way, but was always plenty close enough in the testing conditions as stable companion Thousand Stars led the way.
Another stablemate, Zaidpour, looked a big danger as he swept into the lead on the turn for home, but Hurricane Fly (4-11 favourite) had reeled him in by the final flight and went away to score by two and a half lengths in a professional if not flashy manner.
Mullins said: “I was worried about him passing the winning post first time. I thought ‘this guy is not enjoying this’. I think on reflection he just wasn’t enjoying the real sticky ground. Ruby (Walsh) said when he asked him he did what he had to do.
“I thought he had a really hard race in Cheltenham and horses remember those things. It will be great for him to get his confidence back having won today and once the ground is better I think he’ll be back to himself.
“He went to Cheltenham last year with four runs under his belt and very, very fit. Maybe this year he just didn’t have that hard fitness that racing gives you and maybe that’s what found him out. We’ll be doing our best next season to get him out early and get runs under his belt and have him fit and well.”
Classy Quevega conquers World again
Quevega landed the Ladbrokes.com World Series Hurdle at Punchestown for the third year in a row.
Willie Mullins’ remarkable eight-year-old retained her mares’ hurdle crown at the Cheltenham Festival again last month, but was opposed here by Voler La Vedette, who had given Big Buck’s a race at Prestbury Park.
The big two came to the fore approaching the final flight, but the finishing kick of the 11/10 favourite was decisive as she put five and a half lengths between herself and her rival by the post.
Mullins said: “She’s a good mare. Obviously Voler La Vedette was in some form and had great form coming into the race so I was quite worried, but she did the business.
“We keep it simple - one run every six months! We’ve taken her to Auteuil once or twice but I’m not sure, we’ll see how she comes out of this but we’ll stick to the same programme next year I would think.”
Asked if he could be tempted to clash with Big Buck’s, Mullins said: “I’ll take on Big Buck’s at Cheltenham if they can get him entered in the mares’ hurdle, is that good enough! The programme we follow works fantastic so I’m not looking for diversions. We follow a plan and it works well.
“I’m going to keep it simple and I suppose we might meet Big Buck’s somewhere away from Cheltenham, but I wouldn’t really want to miss this race to go to Aintree.”
Reflecting on the victory, Mullins said: “She did what Ruby asked her and when push came to shove she still had plenty left in the tank. She pinged the last - not like last year - and as we would never have minded taking on the best over two miles, we knew she wouldn’t be found wanting for a change of gear.
“She won three on the Flat before she ever came to me. She’s a real good mare and she showed that today. It was a fantastic performance and a great ride by Ruby too. She came in season last week but she came out of it quick enough.”
Walsh said: “She was very good, we went a good gallop in testing ground but she settled well and jumped really well. Off the bend it looked the match that it was, but Voler La Vedette started to fold going to the last hurdle and my mare stayed better. Quevega’s a great mare.”
Sizing digs deep in Champion show
Sizing Europe defied the gruelling conditions as he pulled out all the stops to land the boylesports.com Champion Chase at Punchestown.
Henry de Bromhead’s stable star, placed in the last two renewals of the Grade One contest, was sent off the 8-13 favourite to end his season on a high and tracked early pacesetter China Rock for the much of the two-mile journey before jumping into the lead four fences from home.
The gambled-on Realt Dubh stuck with him all the way up the home straight, but a determined Sizing Europe would not be denied under Andrew Lynch, plugging on tenaciously to score by two and a quarter lengths.
De Bromhead said: “I’m not even looking back (at Cheltenham, where he was controversially beaten in the Queen Mother Champion Chase), I’m savouring today. It’s amazing, all of us at home put a lot of hard work into it.
“Realt Dubh is a good horse, especially on that soft ground, but our fellow is an unbelievable horse, one in a lifetime. It’s very hard to win these races and the ground is testing enough, they are finishing tired.
“Realt Dubh was bearing down on us and I was getting a bit nervous, but our lad ground it out and we’re delighted. Andrew knows him like the back of his hand at this stage and he jumped great - everything went to plan. On that ground he was there to be shot at and it was uncomfortable coming to the last, but he’s so tough.”
Paddy Power make Sizing Europe a 10-1 chance to regain his Champion Chase crown back at Cheltenham next March, but the trainer is not ruling out stepping his charge back up in distance.
He has finished second in the last two renewals of the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal over three miles.
De Bromhead said: “I’ve no idea what we’ll do. We’re going to enjoy today and we’ll discuss things with Alan and Ann (Potts, owners) over the summer. He’s had an unbelievable season. He’ll be 11 this time next year, so he’s getting older. Maybe we’ll step him up again. I wouldn’t be opposed to trying him over three miles next season.”
Lynch added: “The ground is a bit softer than ideal for him, but he has a big heart and he pulled out all the stops. He idled up the straight and though he is handling that ground better as he gets older, he is still way better on better ground.”
Sir Des survives scare
Sir Des Champs survived a final-fence blunder to maintain his unbeaten record for Willie Mullins in the Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown.
The six-year-old (2-7 favourite), stepping up to Grade One level after winning the Jeswon at the Cheltenham Festival, and also tackling three miles and a furlong for the first time, was sent straight to the front by Davy Russell and jumped accurately for much of the journey.
He had his rivals cooked rounding the home turn and as Russell just eased off his mount approaching the final obstacle, he ploughed through it, with the jockey doing well to stay on board.
With Mossey Joe suffering a horrific fall at the same fence when running a big race, hampering Frisco Depot, who unseated his rider, Sir Des Champs came home 36 lengths ahead of Shop DJ.
Gutsy Alderwood lands treble
Alderwood came out best in an epic battle with Trifolium to complete a hat-trick in the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.
The County Hurdle winner, subsequently successful at Fairyhouse, was always prominent in the Grade One contest but looked to have a lot on his plate when Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third Trifolium went on between the final two flights.
Tom Mullins’ eight-year-old (5-2) refused to give up, however, and with Tony McCoy applying maximum drive he clawed back the deficit to score by half a length from the odds-on favourite.
Merigo Storms Home to Victory in SGN
Cheers normally reserved for a Cup final winning goal echoed around Ayr Racecourse on Saturday afternoon when Merigo crossed the line a head in front of a gallant Auroras Encore in the Coral Scottish Grand National.
The gallant 11 year-old ridden by Timmy Murphy chased Auroras Encore up the home straight and was a length down jumping the last fence but rallied to mug Ryan Mania’s mount as they passed the post.
It was a fitting finale to a great race and Merigo became the first horse since 1956 to win back the race having won it in 2010 and been runner up last year.
Tears flowed from an emotional owner Raymond Anderson Green accompanied by his wife Anita and daughter Verity wife of jockey Murphy.
Trainer Andrew Parker who is based in Eccelfechan near Dumfries summed it all up when he said : “That’s eight times Merigo has run here and he’s won five, been second twice and third once. He just comes alive here - he has the heart of a lion.”
The well backed 15/2 shot even carried the support of First Minister Alex Salmond who quipped : “A Scottish winner of the National, the money is out of the bookies’ satchels and the nation’s finances have taken a turn for the better.”
A crowd of 16,314 watched the action - the third highest attendance in 20 years and the sun shone the entire afternoon.