The narrative over the five days of the Punchestown Festival in the last two seasons has been Gordon Elliott’s spirited but ultimately doomed attempts to seize a first trainers’ championship from Willie Mullins. Last year, Elliott started the week as an odds-on chance for the title but was blown away by a 9,802-1 six-timer from Mullins on day two. A year earlier, the decisive shift arrived even later in the week when Mullins and his son, Patrick, landed a Grade One double on day four.
This time around, it is not even close. Mullins has been trailing Elliott for the last two years at the start of Punchestown week but on Tuesday he will go into the grand finale of Ireland’s jumps season with a lead of more than €1m over Elliott. Runners from his stable also dominate the ante-post betting on many of the week’s biggest events, including the featured Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday in which he will field the only three runners – Al Boum Photo, Kemboy and Bellshill – at a single-figure price.
It promises to be a fitting conclusion to what Mullins might well consider to be the finest season of his outstanding career. He has put some clear water between himself and his most obvious challenger in the domestic ranks (though the rapid progress of Joseph O’Brien, third in the table this year for the second season in succession, has also been a feature of the campaign). He was the leading trainer at Cheltenham for the first time in three seasons. And, above all, Al Boum Photo finally secured Mullins’s first win in the Cheltenham Gold Cup after so many years of near-misses.
The meeting between Al Boum Photo and Kemboy, who unseated his rider at the first in the Gold Cup but made short work of his field in the Betway Bowl at Aintree, promises to be the highlight of the week and Kemboy, rather than the Gold Cup winner, is currently the narrow favourite at 13-8 ahead of Al Boum Photo at 7-4. Such is the depth of the Mullins challenge over the first few days, though, that as Ruby Walsh, his long-serving No 1 rider, has pointed out, Mullins could have a great week while Walsh goes home empty-handed.
It is unlikely, of course. Apart from three seasons – 2010, 2011 and last year – when he missed the entire meeting through injury, Walsh has not drawn a blank at Punchestown since 2003 – when he suffered concussion after being unseated in the first race of the Festival and sat out the remainder of the week. He may struggle to hit the heights of 2013, when he had eight winners during the week including four Grade Ones, but Walsh kicks off aboard two odds-on shots on Tuesday’s card in Klassical Dream, the Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, in the Champion Novice Hurdle and Min, the runaway winner of the Melling Chase, in the Boylesports Champion Chase.
What also seems unlikely this week is an announcement that Walsh will be hanging up his riding boots ahead of his 40th birthday in a couple of weeks’ time. There has been much speculation in recent weeks that Walsh might see his next Grade One winner as the right moment to call it a day but his victory on Burrows Saint in the Irish Grand National has come and gone and he told his blog on the Paddy Power website last week that “I’m like a bad smell, I’m going nowhere”.
An outstanding week is in prospect as Ireland brings another memorable jumps season to a close and as the extraordinary departure of Al Boum Photo last year showed, this is a meeting where anything can happen.
Monday’s best bets
All three of Monday afternoon’s meetings, oddly, are on the all-weather and the turf does not get a look-in until Windsor kicks off its hugely popular programme of Monday evening meetings at 4.55.
Katheefa (4.15) was a bit below form last time out but has a big chance returning to the Fibresand at Southwell where he was a ready winner earlier in the month. Archive (3.20) is now a nine-year-old but arrives at Newcastle in the form of his life after two wins off a mark of 69 in recent weeks and can race off a lower all-weather mark of 67, while Willkommen (3.00) and Pentland Lad (4.55) should both run well at Wolverhampton and Windsort respectively.
2.00 Sharrabang 2.30 Second Collection 3.00 Willkommen 3.30 Gemini 4.05 Astraea 4.35 Mokammal 5.10 Up Ten Down Two
2.10 Zorro’s Girl 2.40 Bettys Hope 3.10 Piper Arrow 3.45 Majestic Moon 4.15 Katheefa (nap) 4.45 Say The Word 5.20 Thecornishbarron
2.20 Scuzeme 2.50 Full Authority 3.20 Archive (nb) 3.55 Addis Ababa 4.25 Bowerman 5.00 Lord North 5.30 Racquet
4.55 Pentland Lad 5.25 Emten 6.00 Mooroverthebridge 6.30 Escapability 7.00 Global Heat 7.30 Victory Chime 8.00 Durrell
5.05 Muhallab 5.40 Beautiful Gesture 6.10 Followme Followyou 6.40 Strawberry Jack 7.10 Dalton 7.40 Nevada 8.10 Mywayistheonlyway