Punchestown: The bookies' verdict
The 2013 Punchestown Festival gets under way on Tuesday with five days of cracking National Hunt action in store.
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Sprinter Sacre heads the entries but plenty of other stars will be out in force as the Irish jumps season reaches a climax.
We've been asking several leading bookmakers for their thoughts on what's likely to unfold at the famous course.
Our Ben Linfoot put the questions to them and here's what they had to say.
Champagne Fever was a supreme winner of the Supreme at Cheltenham - how hopeful are you of getting him beaten?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Very. We make Jezki favourite to reverse placings as Champagne Fever got the run of the race at Cheltenham and he won't have it all his own way here.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Punchestown is more of a speed track than Cheltenham and with this in mind you would have to be very hopeful that Jezki can reverse the Supreme Novices form.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Reasonably hopeful. Yes, the William Hill Supreme form has been franked by My Tent Or Yours at Aintree, but Champagne Fever had a hard race at the Festival, and his run style makes him a target for his rivals. On official ratings, Champagne Fever has only 4lbs in hand of Jezki and 5lbs of Rule The World, and I think the Mouse Morris runner could give the favourite most to do.
Jason Ryan, Coral: Champagne Fever was very impressive in the Supreme Novices' at Cheltenham under a masterful ride from Ruby Walsh. He followed up his Champion Bumper win by winning at the Punchestown Festival last year so he certainly deserves the utmost respect coming into this race. However, he's there to be shot at and we feel Jezki is a more than formidable challenger. He previously beat Champagne Fever in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse and was arguably unlucky not to get nearer to the front two in the Supreme as he made a costly mistake at the final hurdle. It may turn out that he will have too much speed for Willie Mullins' gallant grey.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: A supreme winner indeed. The form has since been well franked by My Tent Or Yours who was a facile winner at the Grand National meeting but he won't be re-opposing, whereas the Supreme third and compatriot Jezki will. Jessica Harrington's five-year-old was a clear winner from Champagne Fever earlier in the year, albeit in receipt of 3lbs, but the tables were turned at Cheltenham. At the moment everyone is struggling to split the pair and it could be that Jezki, being slightly fresher having had a mid-season break, might turn the tables once again. I can only see the winner being one of these two.
The Punchestown Festival can throw up funny results, but, if he runs, is Sprinter Sacre a certainty?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: In a word, yes!
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Yes.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: As Nicky Henderson likes to remind the world, there is no such thing as a certainty, but the imperious Sprinter Sacre looks the winner bar a fall. He looks the real deal, is the highest-rated chaser in the world today and has already won at Cheltenham and Aintree. Barry Geraghty has total faith in the 'Black Aeroplane' and he should make it 10 out of 10.
Jason Ryan, Coral: In a word, yes. He's one of the best chasers of all-time and he seems to be improving from run-to-run which is scary as we still don't think we've seen the best of him. He made a mockery of Cue Card, Flemenstar and co at Aintree and if he runs I can't imagine either of the aforementioned would want to take him on again. Moscow Flyer managed to get beat at odds of 1/4 in the 2005 renewal of this race but it would be an even bigger shock if Sprinter Sacre didn't win impressively.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: A wise man once said to me that there are no certainties in racing. Then I saw Big Buck's over hurdles. Then I saw Frankel on the Flat. Now I see Sprinter Sacre over fences. Earlier in the season I was of the opinion that if something could get him off the bridle then he would be vulnerable but, simply, nothing can. Cue Card has proved a worthy opponent from our shores but he can't live with him and, by the looks of things, the Emerald Isle doesn't have a worthy opponent, especially if Sizing Europe takes the three mile option. I imagine the Punchestown crowd will be packed to the rafters to roar home Nicky Henderson's star and the latest National Hunt superstar.
Who do you fear in the Growise Champion Novice Steeplechase?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Willie Mullins. He has both Boston Bob and Back In Focus entered, you could argue both should have won at Cheltenham, whichever he runs will take a lot of beating.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: There probably isn't a lot between the 3m novices this year so I doubt we will be running for cover from any one horse. Dedigout is a horse with a lot of potential and if the ground was to come up soft he could be one to have on your side.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: The market will favour Boston Bob, on the basis that he would probably have won the RSA Chase at Cheltenham but for his final-fence blunder. However, I respect another horse who failed to complete the course on his last outing, Harry Topper. Kim Bailey has trained top-class chasers, including Master Oats, so the fact he rates Harry Topper so highly is hugely significant. He is considered pure class by his handler, and can cement his status as a Gold Cup contender for 2014 with a win here.
Jason Ryan, Coral: All of them! This race is shaping up to be one of the best of the week as there isn't a huge amount to choose between the majority of them. Boston Bob was playing a big part in the RSA Chase before falling at the final fence and if he has recovered from that he has to be feared. Lyreen Legend ran a cracker to finish second in the aforementioned race and if he were to turn up in the same form he would have to go close. Back In Focus just touched off Tofino Bay in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham and we think the Dessie Hughes runner was unlucky on that occasion as he idled up the hill. At the likely prices he should give you a good run for your money. The two possible British challengers, Harry Topper and Third Intention, have to be feared also. It's going to be a great race.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: It's safe to say that whatever Willie Mullins runs will be a very popular selection, though whether his two vying for favouritism cross swords looks doubtful, especially after he's kept them apart all year. Back In Focus took advantage of a rival's fall to score at Cheltenham, whereas Boston Bob looked the winner in the RSA before crumpling on landing two out. His other entry, Terminal, was well held in the RSA and it would be hard to see him overturn that form. Of the English raiders Harry Topper looks to have the best chance and the soft ground looks in his favour but this race, as many do at this festival, looks at the mercy of the master Mullins.
Will you be keeping on the right side of Sir Des Champs in the Punchestown Gold Cup following his Cheltenham second?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: It looks a competitive race so we won't be ducking him but he does look hard to beat off his Cheltenham run, though I think Long Run will get closer to him on this course.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: He had a very hard race in Cheltenham and got very tired in the closing stages so may be worth opposing against a high-quality field.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Sir Des Champs rightly heads the market here and will be hard to beat. He ran a mighty race in the Gold Cup under substitute AP McCoy, giving the winner Bobs Worth a real race until the final furlong. Missing Aintree to stay fresh for this test looks the right tactics, and he should have too much class for Long Run and co.
Jason Ryan, Coral: We weren't convinced by Sir Des Champs going into the Gold Cup but we certainly were afterwards and he looks to have a fantastic chance of winning this. However, the Punchestown Gold Cup is a Grade 1 and if the ground comes up soft there would have to be a slight doubt hanging over him. He deserves to be favourite but on soft ground we'll be happy to lay him at the forecast price.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: The crucial factor in this will be the ground; if it remains soft, then we think he is vulnerable but if the ground dries out, then he will be hard to beat. That said, this race will be no cake walk with a strong British raiding party, as well as some more-than-worthy contenders from the home team. The Gold Cup form looks very strong, though Sir Des Champs did have a hard race and he did finish behind the same owners' First Lieutenant, who opposes here, at Christmas, so he's certainly no shoo-in for this. Of the English contingent Long Run looks the strongest candidate as he is a most reliable horse who you can set your clock by being in the first three and you can't rule out Captain Chris or Riverside Theatre, who are both miles better horses going right-handed. It's safe to say that there are some fierce challengers and this won't be an easy task for Willie Mullins' charge.
Is Solwhit the new Big Buck's when it comes to pricing up staying hurdles? Will he be the hot favourite rather than Quevega?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: No. Solwhit has had a great spring but he has a long way to go to gain Big Buck's status. Quevega is a league above what has been placed to Solwhit at Cheltenham and Liverpool - they will be tight to each other in the market.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: I don't know about comparing him to Big Buck's just yet. However, he has been very impressive this year and at the moment you would have to favour him over the mare.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Solwhit is certainly the one to beat here, but he has some way to go before being mentioned in the same breath as the great Big Buck's. Solwhit has won well at both Cheltenham and Aintree and will head the market here in front of the Mullins mare.
Jason Ryan, Coral: Charles Byrnes deserves a huge amount of credit for getting Solwhit back to his best after his injury and he was nothing but impressive at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals. If he turns up at Punchestown in the same form we think Quevega might need to produce a career-best performance to beat him but who knows how much the wonder-mare that is Quevega has in her locker? It was almost like she wanted to give herself a lot to do at Cheltenham, solely for another challenge. Hopefully they both turn up in tip-top shape and if they do we're in for a treat.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: There is no doubting what Solwhit has achieved this year, feats made more remarkable by the fact he missed a year through injury, even though he hasn't had the great Big Buck's to deal with. It is fair to say that he has proved many doubters wrong, who often crabbed his form with Hurricane Fly, and he has proven himself as a top-class horse. However, whilst Charles Byrnes' gelding's feats have been fantastic, he still has some way to go before being mentioned in the same breath as the greatest staying hurdler so, whilst we will price him up with respect, we won't be pricing him up as Big Buck's mark II. That said, the likelihood is that he will be favourite ahead of the great mare Quevega, who didn't look at her peak when winning her fifth straight Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham despite almost coming to grief, though she still warrants the highest respect.
Who's the interesting one in the Ryanair Novice Steeplechase?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Arvika Ligeonniere. He looks a much better horse right handed and Ruby wasn't hard on him at Cheltenham.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: If Arvika Ligeonniere could bounce back to his best he might give them all something to think about. He seems better suited by right-handed tracks.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: This is a fascinating renewal, but the market may underplay the chances of Special Tiara. He was a big price when he battled bravely to outstay the lion-hearted Overturn at Aintree, and he could well outrun his likely odds again in this race. He has the best part of a stone to find on official figures with the best in the field, but I think the handicapper has underrated the Henry de Bromhead runner.
Jason Ryan, Coral: It's no surprise that Willie Mullins has another strong hand in this with both Marito and Arvika Ligeonniere potentially representing him. Both of those have to have a serious chance if turning up and preference is for the latter who will be suited back at a right-handed track.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: The Irish ruled supreme in the top novice chases at the spring festivals and we see many of those who ran so well at Cheltenham and Aintree entered in this. However, many of those who ran so well just a few weeks ago improved for the better ground, something that we are not looking likely to have at Punchestown. So whilst Baily Green, Alderwood and Special Tiara put in mighty efforts in their respective races, they are all vulnerable back on soft ground. This leads me to the thinking that it will be worth siding with Arvika Ligeonniere who was mopping up Graded events before coming to grief early behind Benefficient and subsequently running a poor race in the Arkle. However, back on proper Irish soft ground, and bear in mind he has beaten most of these in the winter, he should be a big player. Don't rule out Benefficient though, whose Jewson form looks very strong, but the doubt is that if it is very soft ground then he might not be able to show his best.
Will you be taking on Rule The World in the Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: If Rule The World runs here he will be hard to beat but I think plenty of people will be willing to give Pont Alexandre another chance back on home soil.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: This could develop into a very hot contest. Coming off the back of a hard race in Cheltenham he may be worth opposing. He looks the type to develop into a lovely chaser.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: He will be the one to beat after that mighty run behind The New One. He has entries in the other two main novice contests, but this looks the best option for the Mouse Morris runner. There is a possibility that the race could cut up, and if he went off a very short price, he would be worth taking on, but otherwise we will take a neutral position on him.
Jason Ryan, Coral: With the likelihood of testing ground for the Punchestown Festival, Rule The World has to be respected as he has won on heavy ground and comes into this race off the back of a huge performance behind The New One in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle. With the exception of Champagne Fever, who is likely to run earlier in the week, Rule The World is the highest rated horse in the race with a mark of 152, and deservedly so. Apart from Un Atout and Pont Alexandre, who are possible runners from the Willie Mullins camp, there isn't a lot of strength in depth and if Rule The World runs to the level we know he can I'm sure he'll prove very tough to beat.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: Mouse Morris' six-year-old has looked imperious over the trip and on soft ground over the winter and will certainly be contesting favouritism for this event. Currently there are many horses entered in this that are also entered elsewhere throughout the week, though it is looking likely that the opposition here may well lack any real depth. The dangers to him, should they turn up, look to be the Mullins pair of Un Atout and Pont Alexandre, though Rule The World had Pont Alexandre behind him at Cheltenham and should uphold the form. We'd have to see the opposition nearer the time but at the moment we wouldn't be too keen to lay much of him.
Annie Power looks another star mare for Willie Mullins. Do you think you'll be quoting prices about her for races like the Champion Hurdle after Saturday?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: The mares' division is very weak; she will prove nothing by winning the mares' race on Saturday - unless Quevega runs against her of course!
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: She is already in many people's notebooks for next March. She has been very impressive and her form looks very solid. I'm sure she will only further enhance her reputation this week.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: It will be interesting to see which race Willie Mullins elects to run his unbeaten mare in next week. Annie Power is likely to have three options during the week, but if continuing her sequence over the minimum trip in Grade One company, then, yes, she will be quoted for the 2014 Champion Hurdle. Mares continue to get a useful weight allowance, so a top-class mare would need to be respected in the Champion Hurdle.
Jason Ryan, Coral: Annie Power has been a terrific servant to Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci all season and there's no doubt she's a very exciting mare. However, all of her runs/wins have come on ground with some ease in it and if she were to earn a serious quote for the Champion Hurdle she would have to prove herself on better ground. She looks the perfect type to fill Quevega's boots in the Mares' division and in our opinion perhaps that's the best route to take.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: We certainly expect Annie Power to be a warm order for this event having had the beating of pretty much all of these throughout the winter and it would be a surprise if she were to be defeated in this. However, with regards to Champion Hurdle aspirations, she will have beat these on the bridle and by a distance if she were to be considered a live contender for one of the Championship events at Cheltenham. The division already looks strong and, with plenty of up-and-coming rivals emerging from the novice ranks and she looks more of a contender to for Quevega's tiara, than Hurricane Fly's crown.
If Our Conor runs in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle what sort of price is he going to be?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: We are currently quoting 1/3 with a run.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: 1/3 - he looks head and shoulders above the opposition.
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Tough question without seeing the final field, but if he turns up, he will be at least 1/4, possibly shorter.
Jason Ryan, Coral: It's hard to say when we're a week or so from the race and ground conditions/number of runners are still in the balance although I can tell you he'll be pretty short. He has beaten the majority of his possible rivals already and he would have to run a fair bit below form if any of them are going to get close to him this time around. He looks the real deal.
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: I think the answer to this question is simple - very short. I doubt that there has been a more impressive winner of the Triumph Hurdle than Dessie Hughes' juvenile and the way he travelled so powerfully ,whilst getting the rest of what looked like a good filed off the bridle so early, before zooming away up the hill at Cheltenham will live long in the memory. On all known form, he has this field tied up in knots, and it could be a case of Our Conor first and the rest nowhere before an all-out assault on the Champion Hurdle next year.
Who will be top jockey?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Ruby Walsh
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Ruby Walsh
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Ruby Walsh will be nigh on impossible to beat, but Barry Geraghty might be a smidge of value.
Jason Ryan, Coral: Ruby Walsh
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: Ruby Walsh. Davy Russell should be his nearest challenger, with the pick of the Gigginstown horses, and young revelation Bryan Cooper could well pick up a few pots.
And the top trainer?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Willie Mullins
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Willie Mullins
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Willie Mullins
Jason Ryan, Coral: Willie Mullins
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: Willie Mullins
A handicapper to follow?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Make Your Mark
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Make Your Mark
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Fahamore
Jason Ryan, Coral: Leah Claire
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: Rattan
What's your bet of the week?
Paddy Power, Paddy Power: Zest For Life in the Fr Sean Breen Chase on Tuesday.
Leon Blanche, Boylesports: Turnandgo in the Champion Bumper
Richard Thomas, William Hill: Harry Topper to win the Growise Champion Novice Steeplechase
Jason Ryan, Coral: Big Shu in the La Touche Cup
Andrew Wootton, Sky Bet: Captain Chris at 7/1 for the Punchestown Gold Cup