The greatest show in town!
Our Irish expert Donn McClean previews the opening day's action from the Punchestown Festival.
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If Sprinter Sacre were an airplane, he would probably be, well, an airplane. One of those airplanes that attracts people from all over the country, and who combines with the Kildare sunshine to add 10% or 20% (who knows?) to the gate for Punchestown, Round One.
It is difficult to get away from the feeling that it is an act of pure benevolence by Punchestown perennial Nicky Henderson to take the fastest steeplechaser of this generation over to Co Kildare so that we, the Irish, can see him in the flesh, when the easier path would have been to let him off out into a field for the summer. It is an act that is greatly appreciated by the Irish racing public (Henry de Bromhead possibly excepted), mind you, and they are certain to vote with their feet. (Get there early.)
Jezki has a chance of beating Champagne Fever in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. He did beat him, after all, in the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse last December. Champagne Fever exacted his revenge at Cheltenham, however, and it might be difficult for Jessica Harrington's horse to bridge the near-three-length gap by which he was beaten that day.
The easier track does give him a chance. The standard time for two miles at Punchestown is six seconds faster than the standard time for two miles and half a furlong on the Old Course at Cheltenham. However, with all the rain that has fallen on Punchestown in the last few days and, indeed, in the last few months, conditions are sure to be testing, and that will suit Champagne Fever much more than it will suit Jezki.
As well as that, with no other obvious front-runner in the line-up, it is likely that Ruby Walsh will have it all to himself up there on Champagne Fever. He could be able to adopt the quick-slow-quick tactics that he executed so well in the Supreme.
Rule The World does come into it, he ran a cracker to finish second behind the top class The New One in the Neptune Hurdle on just his fifth ever race under Rules. He is a hugely exciting staying chaser in the making, but he doesn't lack pace, and it is interesting that Mouse Morris is allowing him take his chance in this instead of waiting for a longer Grade 1 race later in the week. He could be the one to chase Champagne Fever home.
You could back 10 or 12 horses in the Bragbet.com Handicap Hurdle and not have one in the frame, but Shamiran looks over-priced at 16/1.
Significantly, Shamiran's only two wins in 14 runs over hurdles have been on the two occasions on which he has run at Punchestown. He was an impressive winner of the Martinstown Opportunity Final at this meeting last year, when he and the runner-up had it between them from a long way out in a race that has worked out well. He didn't shape badly on his most recent run at Fairyhouse, he will love the soft ground, and it is probable that, given his affinity with Punchestown, and with a visor replacing cheekpieces, trainer Stephen Nolan has had this day in mind for a while.
Tofino Bay also looks a little over-priced at 9/1 in the Grade 1 Growise Novice Chase, a race in which you could just about make a case for all eight runners. Winner of the Troytown Chase under 11st 4lb at Navan in November, the Gigginstown House horse ran a cracker to finish second to Back In Focus in the Natioanal Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last month. He travelled like the most likely winner into the home straight that day, and he might even have won had Rival D'Estruval not fallen at the second last fence and left him on his own in front.
He just idled on the run-in - he wears cheekpieces for a reason - which opened the door for Willie Mullins' horse, who produced a power-packed finish under Patrick Mullins to get up and win by a half a length.
Back In Focus is a high-class staying novice chaser, and it is significant that Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride him today in front of Boston Bob. Obviously, he could easily win this, he will relish the testing ground as well, but even on the bare form of the Cheltenham race, it doesn't make sense that Tofino Bay is available at more than twice his odds.
Davy Russell prefers Dedigout, and he has a real chance, but there can't have been much in it. Dessie Hughes' horses continue in fine form, Tofino Bay loves Punchestown - his record there is 131 - and he could out-perform his odds by a fair way.
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.