Aintree’s Grand National Meeting, multiple Guineas Trials, and Ayr’s Scottish Grand National have already made April a month to remember for horse racing fans. However, the best could still be to come, as this week’s Punchestown Festival (April 24-28) promises to throw together an abundance of equine talent from the yards of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins.
The two giants of Irish National Hunt Training have already broken many barriers this season. Elliott has set a new record for the numbers of winners trained in a single season with 206 and counting, whilst, despite Elliott’s success, Mullins has also trained his highest number of winners in a season with 194 and counting. However, the title is decided on the amount of prize-money won, and Elliott will head into the Punchestown Festival with a lead over just over €527,000. Things could change quickly though with several million Euros worth of prize-money up for grabs this week.
The bookies make Elliott slight favourite to win his first Trainers’ Championship but, as Mullins has such a fantastic record at the meeting, Elliott is no certainty.
The Punchestown Festival isn’t the only racing worth mentioning this week, as Sandown also hosts a prestigious two-day meeting with the Bet365 Classic Trial Day on Friday and the Bet365 Jumps Finale on Saturday. Punters also get their first taste of flat racing action from Epsom for the year on Wednesday.
Punchestown Tuesday 24 April
The opening day of the Punchestown Festival is known as Boylesports Champion Chase Day, and this year’s Boylesports Champion Chase is where Irish Racing fans will be hoping to see Douvan return to top-form after blowing out at the last two Cheltenham Festivals. Amazingly, he looks likely to take on stablemates Min and Un De Sceaux in a race where Mullins looks sure to close the gap between himself and Elliott. The card also features the Growise Novice Chase in which Monalee is likely to start favourite after finishing second to Presenting Percy in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. There’s also the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle which could see a rematch between the Mullins trained Getabird and the Elliott trained Mengli Khan.
Punchestown Wednesday 25 April
The second day of the Punchestown Festival is Punchestown Gold Cup Day, and Willie Mullins looks sure to have some serious chances of landing the big one with the likes of Killultagh Vic, Bellshill, and Djakadam. However, the early favourite Road To Respect could take some stopping if he’s in the same form as when fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Other notable races on the second day include the Irish Champion Bumper and the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle, two more races in which Willie Mullins looks sure to have the favourites.
Epsom Wednesday 25 April
Racing has been taking place on Epsom Downs for over 350 years, with UK’s flat racing’s Blue Riband event The Derby taking place there since 1780. The course may be one of the most idiosyncratic tracks in the world, but it always manages to produce exciting races, including the Investec Blue Riband Trial, the Investec Corporate Banking Great Metropolitan Handicap, and the Investec City and Surburban Handicap.
Punchestown Thursday 26 April
There’s a real mix on the third day of the Punchestown Festival, with the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle taking centre stage. Penhill will be looking to do the double after winning the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and his biggest rival may well be another Willie Mullins trained runner Bacardys, who fell at Cheltenham but won one of the novice races at last year’s Punchestown Festival. Thursday’s card also features the La Touche Cross Country Race, and the Ryanair Novice Chase in which Footpad could be another Willie Mullins hotpot after his victory in the Arkle at Cheltenham.
Punchestown Friday 27 April
The fourth day of the Punchestown Festival traditionally attracts the biggest crowd of the week. Ireland’s biggest party goers take the day off from work and enjoy the Betdaq Champion Hurdle in some style. Melon is the current favourite for the Champion Hurdle after his second in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but that could all change if Gordon Elliott decides to pitch potential superstar Samcro into battle in the big one rather than take up one of several options he has in novice hurdles. Those options include the Profile Systems Champion Novice Hurdle which could be a showdown between Samcro and Laurina, with the latter having been mightily impressive for Willie Mullins when winning the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Sandown Friday 27 April
Bet365 Classic Trial Day is the opening fixture of Sandown’s flat season with the feature races being the Bet365 Classic Trial and the Bet365 Mile. Chilean has been installed as the ante-post favourite with most bookmakers for the Bet365 Classic Trial, with Dee Ex Bee another interesting contender. It’s John Gosden who has trained four of the last 10 winners of the race though, so it may be worth keeping an eye on his runners. Meanwhile, its runners from the stable of Richard Hannon that are worth noting in the Bet365 Mile as the stable has trained six of the last 10 winners of this Group 2 Race. However, it’s the impressive Lincoln Handicap winner Addeybb from the yard of William Haggas that has been installed as the early favourite by the bookies.
Sandown Saturday 28 April
The day after Sandown hosts its first flat fixture of the season it brings the curtain down on the 2017/18 jumps season with a fantastic jumps card called the Bet365 Jump Finale. Fans will hopefully get the chance to see Altior in the Celebration Chase continue his unbeaten run over fences as he’s pencilled into to try and follow-up his Champion Chase victory with back-to-back wins this Grade 1 two-mile chase. However, the highlight of the day for betting purposes is the Bet365 Gold Cup. Cheltenham winner Missed Approach and Kasbah Bliss are vying for early favouritism, with Blakion possibly set to carry top-weight if he bids for compensation after being brought down at the first fence in the Grand National. 2012 winner Tidal Bay defied 11-12 but is the only horse in the last decade to carry more than 11-0, and one of only three to carry more than 11-0 this century.
Punchestown Saturday 28 April
As Friday’s party-goers recover from their exertions, Saturday sees Punchestown Racecourse host the AES Festival Family Day. To coincide with the idea of bringing children to the races, the racing also focuses on youth with the 4-year-old Champion Hurdle the highlight of the fifth and final day of the Punchestown Festival. The race could feature Farclas and Mr Adjudicator who were first and second in the Triumph Hurdle, for that duo of Elliott and Mullins. Saturday’s Punchestown card also features the Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle which could see Apple’s Jade bid for compensation after flopping at Cheltenham, though Cheltenham Benie Des Dieux will be out to stop her in another Elliott vs Mullins clash.
Elliott vs Mullins
Gordon Elliott takes a massive lead in the Irish National Hunt Trainers Title into the Punchestown Festival but its Mullins who has a phenomenal record at the meeting. Therefore, as Mullins looks likely to close the gap significantly on Tuesday, it could be worth taking the odds-against about Mullins wrestling the title away from Elliott, just as he did last year in the shadow of the post.