Irish Eyes: Viva la Vega
Excitement is at fever pitch in Ireland now as punters look forward to what promises to be the best Punchestown Festival ever held.
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Never before have so many top class horses featured at what Nicky Henderson has described as 'the away leg' of the Cheltenham/Punchestown double. Henderson's Sprinter Sacre has been grabbing all the headlines but Hurricane Fly, Solwhit, Quevega, Briar Hill, Salsify, Benefficient, Champagne Fever, Holywell, Our Conor and Back In Focus are just eleven Cheltenham festival winners that are already confirmed participants.
Those horses alone would be worth travelling to see but when you consider there are also at least another ten former Cheltenham festival winners on display, including Long Run, Rock On Ruby, Sizing Europe, Sir Des Champs, Captain Chris, Riverside Theatre and Thousand Stars. The 2013 renewal is without doubt the best National Hunt festival ever run in Ireland.
Now that we have highlighted some of the reasons that you should be there, or at the very least be watching, we need to find some winners that will cover the expenses!
Sprinter Sacre will have no opposition and his race will merely be an exhibition gallop; the chance to see the highest rated national hunt horse in training in the flesh. There are however some terrific head-to-head's in store throughout the week.
One which takes our eye is Thursday's battle between Solwhit and Quevega for the Grade 1 World Series Hurdle. Solwhit has beaten Quevega at the Punchestown festival previously over two miles, in 2009. However, since she stepped up to three miles at Punchestown in 2010, Quevega has remained unbeaten and she has won this race for the last three years. That being said, she has never met a horse of Solwhit's calibre in this event, and hence he is the current favourite.
Consequently, Quevega is available at 13/8 with Sky Bet and as we feel she should actually shade favouritism, she is the value bet. She has been in superb form at home since her fifth win in the mares hurdle at Cheltenham and is technically four pounds well in with Solwhit in this race, given she is rated just three pounds below Solwhit yet she is in receipt of seven pounds from him here. When Solwhit beat Quevega in 2009, he was giving her five pounds and the race was over two miles.
As good as Solwhit is, we don't feel that he will be able to concede the additional two pounds to her over three miles this year. Add into the mix that Solwhit is attempting to win a third Grade 1 in just six weeks, whereas Quevega has not raced since her seasonal debut at Cheltenham and the only logical conclusion that can be reached is that, outside of any odds-on shots such as Sprinter Sacre etc., Quevega is the nap of the week.
The bookmakers have priced up Tuesday's Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle and some of them have installed Jezki as favourite to avenge his defeat in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle where Champagne Fever beat him into third place. We assume that those bookmakers are of the view that the two mile trip at Punchestown might play more into Jezki's favour that the two miles and half a furlong of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle did, up that Cheltenham hill. Also, Jezki did beat Champagne Fever over two miles at Fairyhouse earlier in the season. In our view however, the fact that bookmakers have taken the aforementioned points into consideration merely means that Champagne Fever can be backed at a more attractive price than he should be.
Champagne Fever won at last year's Cheltenham festival before doubling up at the Punchestown festival. In our eyes he showed improved form at Punchestown when he slammed subsequent Tolworth Hurdle winner, Melodic Rendezvous by seven and a half lengths. It is our opinion that he will step up on his Cheltenham performance again this year, and complete the double for the second year running. The likely soft to heavy ground on Tuesday will also be in his favour and he gets the next best vote.
Willie Mullins has broken all records this season and heads into the final week of the season with 181 wins, having long since smashed thorough the previous 155 record mark. He has also set a new record for prize money won in a domestic season, when Sweet My Lord sent him thorough the €3 million mark at Tramore on Saturday.
We are sticking with Mullins to bring up our Trixie courtesy of our old favourite Annie Power, who has already won twice for Irish Eyes followers in 2013. Regular readers will know that she has been considered a 2013 Champion Hurdle prospect now for some time and this is another step for the mare on her journey towards the holy grail. Having beaten geldings on her penultimate start, she reverted to mares novice company when hacking up at Fairyhouse last time out.
Her appearance in Saturday's ITBA Fillies Scheme EBF (Mares) Hurdle at Punchestown will be her first step outside of novice company but she is expected to cope with them in style and bring her unbeaten record to eight races in just eight months - a phenomenal achievement for a mare that only commenced her career last August! For those of you who did not avail of the 40/1 about her for the 2014 Champion Hurdle, she can still be backed at 20/1.
NAP - Quevega - 5.30 Thursday World Series Hurdle - (13/8 Sky Bet)
Next Best - Champagne Fever - 4.20 Tuesday Herald Champion Novice Hurdle - (6/4 generally)
Trixie - Annie Power - 3.45 Saturday ITBA Fillies Scheme EBF (Mares) Hurdle
Battle of Marengo was a winning next best selection and remains on course for the Epsom Derby. Michaelmas just failed to get up by a head and will win his maiden soon before going on to better things. Our third selection, Sweet My Lord won at the rescheduled Tramore meeting.