Hunt for the value
Donn McClean previews the feature action on the third day of the Punchestown Festival.
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Solwhit or Quevega? You wouldn't be surprised if racegoers were handed a tick-box flyer on the way in the gate today.
For starters, it is great that they are both here, that Quevega has more than an 11/10 or an 8/11 dance around, as she has had for the last two years. Five Mares' Hurdles at Cheltenham, she is on track for four World Series Hurdles at Punchestown, and Ladbrokes knew what they were doing when they called it a series.
In Solwhit, however, she obviously has a real rival. There was very little between Charles Byrnes' horse and dual Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly in their 2010/11 skirmishes over two and two and a half miles, and Solwhit actually came out on top in the 2009 Morgiana Hurdle.
It has been a fine feat by the trainer to get Solwhit back to the track, step him up in trip and bag a World Hurdle and a Liverpool Hurdle. We know how good Solwhit was over two and two and a half miles - add the 2009 Aintree Hurdle to his five Grade 1 wins over two miles - and we know now that he stays three miles. The sedate pace may have played into his hands a little at Cheltenham, but he was even more impressive at Aintree, when they didn't hang around.
And so we're back to the Cheltenham-Aintree-Punchestown issue. First Lieutenant ran a cracker in the Gold Cup yesterday after having had hard races at Cheltenham and Aintree, but the fact remains that Sprinter Sacre is the only horse since Istabraq 14 years ago to win at all three Festivals. Admittedly, not many have tried in the interim, but there is a reason for that - it's not easy. Best odds of 6/4 are short enough about Solwhit in that context.
It is mildly surprising that is not favourite. True, Willie Mullins' mare didn't look as impressive in landing her fifth Mares' Hurdle as she had looked in landing numbers one to four, but she got checked at a crucial stage of the race at the top of the hill at Cheltenham, and she did well to win at all.
There is every chance that Quevega will come on for that run. It isn't usual to have a prep run for Punchestown by winning at Cheltenham, but that was her first run since Punchestown last April, and she has progressed on the figures from Cheltenham to Punchestown in three of the last four years.
She does have to reverse a three-length defeat by Solwhit at the 2009 Punchestown Festival, but that was in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle over two miles. She stays three miles well, she won't mind the softening ground, and she receives 7lb from the geldings.
Reve De Sivola isn't out of it either, and he could be the value of the race. True, he was only fourth behind Solwhit in the World Hurdle, but he was only beaten five and a half lengths in the end, and the really sedate early pace there was all against him.
Reve De Sivola is a true stayer. He does handle good ground, as he proved in the Neptune Hurdle in 2010 and when he won the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown five weeks later, but softer ground brings his undoubted stamina into play. His best performances this season have been in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and both races were run on heavy ground.
A winner at the track, the overnight rain is in his favour, he is not far off the top two on form, and he looks a little over-priced at 7/1.
Soft ground or no soft ground, they are probably going to go a million miles and hour over the first few fences in the Ryanair Novice Chase. Nothing leads Arvika Ligeonniere, nothing leads Realt Mor. Also, Baily Green, Benefficient and Special Tiara all like to race handily. Blink when the tapes go up, and they will probably be at the third fence when you open your eyes.
The pace angle is significant. One of the early pace-setters could last all the way, but none of them are advantaged by the presence of the others, and the race could be set up for a closer. Also, the three at the top of the market, Benefficient, Arvika Ligeonniere and Realt Mor, have all put up their best performances over two and a half miles, so, while all three have plenty of pace, the drop down to two miles may not be an advantage.
The race should be run to suit Alderwood. He has the Cheltenham-Aintree-Punchestown factor to overcome, and trainer Tom Mullins reports that he has only just got over Aintree, but he proved his toughness last season when he won the County Hurdle before going on to win a Grade 2 race at Fairyhouse and a Grade 1 contest at Punchestown.
He was a little disappointing at Aintree last time, but he just couldn't get into a rhythm on the sharp Mildmay track on good ground behind a fast pace. The softer ground today will suit JP McManus' horse well, as will the fast pace and the premium that will consequently be placed on stamina. He stays two miles well, he has won over two miles and six furlongs and his future probably lies over further than the minimum trip.
He has 9lb to find on official ratings with the top-rated horse, but he was a high-class novice hurdler, he remains progressive as a chaser, and he should run a big race.
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