Donn McClean: See the light

  • Last Updated: April 29 2014, 17:59 BST

Our Irish expect Donn McClean previews the action on the opening day of the Punchestown Festival.

Twinlight: One of Donn's best bets at Punchestown this afternoon
Twinlight: One of Donn's best bets at Punchestown this afternoon

They call it the Irish Cheltenham, and it is in a sense.  It is in the sense that Hurricane Fly and Jezki will go toe-to-toe again the Champion Hurdle, and in the sense that Vautour and Faugheen and Quevega and Annie Power will all be here, and in the sense that you can probably give the leading trainer’s trophy to Willie Mullins at the start of the week instead of waiting until the end.

But in another sense, it isn’t the Irish Cheltenham at all at all.  It is right-handed for starters, and downhill, and sunny.  It is important to win at Punchestown, but it is more important to enjoy it: to enjoy winning but also to enjoy it if you lose. Even the banks are different.

It’s not the Irish anything.  It’s just Punchestown.

One of the most interesting aspects of Day One – and there are many interesting aspects of Day One – is Faugheen’s foray in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles.  Willie Mullins’ horse has not run over two miles since he won his bumper at Punchestown last May.  He actually won a Grade 3 hurdle at Limerick over Christmas over three miles on heavy ground, and the Cheltenham debate seemed to centre around whether he would run in the Albert Bartlett over three miles or in the Neptune over two and a half. 

He won the Neptune.  Correct decision.

The fact that the returning Ruby Walsh rides him in preference to Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido tells you that both he and Willie Mullins are probably happy that he possesses the requisite speed for the minimum trip.  And he did beat Josses Hill by over 20 lengths on his sole run over two miles.

History tells you that Team Mullins get these things right far more often than they get them wrong.  Remember there was a similar concern over Boston Bob at Aintree over two and a half miles, and look how that one turned out.  At odds-on, however, in a hot race, for all that he is obviously a hugely exciting prospect, Faugheen may be one to watch today instead of back. 

The Champion Chase is wide open.  You would love to see Hidden Cyclone win this for Shark Hanlon and Andrew McNamara.  Third in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, second in the Dial-A-Bet Chase, second in the Clarence House Chase, second in the Ryanair, he deserves to land a big pot this season.  However, he is joint favourite, and two miles at Punchestown on goodish ground may leave him vulnerable.

Twinlight is more interesting at a bigger price.  Willie Mullins’ horse has always shaped like a potentially high-class two-mile chaser.  You have to put a line through his run behind Captain Chris at Kempton in January, but he didn’t jump at all well that day, and that race was run over an extended two and a half miles.  He is zero for four over two and a half miles, and he should be much happier today back over two.

You also have to forgive him his penultimate run at Naas behind Days Hotel and Toner D’Oudairies, but you easily can, given how well he ran on his latest start when he chased home his stable companion Arvika Ligeonniere in the Norman’s Grove Chase at Fairyhouse.

His record going right-handed reads 13F3111132, and his record at Punchestown specifically reads 311, the 3 recorded in the champion juvenile hurdle at the 2011 festival.  He has never been beaten over fences at Punchestown, his latest win there gained under 11st 10lb in a handicap chase at last year’s festival.

He stayed at home during Cheltenham and Aintree, and Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride him today in front of Turban.  He can lead, but there may plenty of pace in today’s race, and he can be just as effective ridden just behind the pace.  It would not be surprising to see Ruby Walsh adopt that position on him today.  And he is only seven, he is younger than all but two of his rivals today and older than none of them.  He still has plenty of scope to progress.

Finally, and continuing the Willie Mullins theme, Djakadam is really interesting in the Growise Champion Chase.  Susannah Ricci’s horse was travelling better than most people seem to remember when he fell at the fourth last fence in the JLT Chase at Cheltenham.  It was a real novicey fall, he just clipped the top of the fence and failed to get his landing gear out on time.

Of course, the fourth last fence on Cheltenham’s New Course too far from the winning post to know for sure how he would have fared had he stood up, but he had done everything right up to that point, and he was travelling easily in a lovely position just behind the leaders.  He could have gone very close.

Significantly, still just a five-year-old, the Saint Des Saints gelding was in receipt of just 1lb from his elders at Cheltenham over two and a half miles.  Today, back in Ireland and over three miles, he receives 9lb from his elders.  That is a significant concession.

A good juvenile hurdler last season – he finished fourth behind three stable companions in the champion juvenile hurdle at last year’s Punchestown Festival – he is built to jump fences, and he shaped like an exciting recruit when he went two for two at Leopardstown over fences in the winter.  He is stepping up to three miles today for the first time, and that is an unknown, but it could bring about further improvement in him.  There is no telling how good he could be, and he could prove to be difficult to beat today.