Punters blown off course as wind packs a Punch

The wind blew, umbrellas flew and even the rain felt like it could cut you in two, but the show went on at Punchestown yesterday.

Well, most of it, anyway.

Five of the seven races survived the morning’s deluge — 15mm of rain fell onto an already sodden track — and the gusts that reportedly reached 90km/h in Ireland’s more exposed areas.

And, by God, was Punchestown exposed.

Punters huddled in whatever nooks and crannies they could find. More than a few cradled cups of coffee for warmth while the parade ring and shopping village stood empty and cordoned off for half of the afternoon on health and safety grounds.

The chase course was out of bounds for the duration, which meant that the featured thetote.com Gold Cup was one of those to fall foul to the conditions. It has now been moved to Saturday, while today’s card is dependant on another inspection at 8am.

Extreme weather is par for the course for those who earn a living from National Hunt racing, a pursuit that routinely dices with the worst vagaries of the winter months, but conditions like yesterday’s are rarely seen in April.

That said, this festival has seen it all.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was a week when local residents had to pour water onto roads to combat dust clouds brought on by unseasonable heat. In 1950, a heavy snowfall caused the opening day to be postponed.

Fears of a repeat lingered until lunchtime yesterday when a delayed and reduced programme of events was given the green light by track officials and the course finally opened to those early birds kept waiting in their cars for news.

In all, 11,500 hardy souls braved the elements. A sizeable number, certainly, but one that was still down 5,000 from the day’s equivalent this time 12 months ago, which represents a significant financial hit in these difficult times.

Some spectators and reporters alike were still expressing amazement at how any racing could be accommodated as the minutes wound down to the off, but their concerns held little weight with others.

“It’s dirty,” said Ted Walsh during a break in RTÉ’s coverage. “It’s not unsafe.”

His son Ruby, champion jockey here nine times since 1999, was of a similar mind after partnering Loch Ard to a 33-length success in the Grade One Irish Daily Mirror War of Attrition Novice Hurdle.

“It’s not bad,” said the jockey, who had earlier walked both courses as part of the inspection team and needed four changes of goggles to battle the sprayback of mud on the two-mile stint.

“It’s all surface water really. There’s nothing to it. It’s perfectly safe.”

Loch Ard’s victory was the first of four on yet another ridiculously successful outing for Willie Mullins who, with three more days to come, is well on the way to claiming the leading trainer prize in these parts for a seventh year in a row.

Mullins’ son Patrick guided Champagne Fever and Flash of Genius home in the Betchronicle.com Champion INH Flat Race and the closing The At The Races Flat Race but the stable’s highlight came in the Irish Daily Mirror War of Attrition Novice Hurdle.

Mullins and owners Rich and Susannah Ricci teamed up to land a rare 1-2-3 in a Grade One, with Paul Townend and Marasonnien followed in by Vesper Bell and Sous Les Cieux. Not just weather for ducks, then.

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