Punchestown the real winner at Cheltenham

Fourteen successes for Ireland at the Cheltenham festival but the real winners — at least going forward — were surely Punchestown.

You’d imagine the track will engage in its usual advertising and publicity drive for their festival on April 23-27, but it won’t have to do much, because this is a meeting that is set to sell itself.

Once the dust had settled on Prestbury Park there could only be one name on the lips of the Punchestown people and that was Sprinter Sacre.

The fact his trainer, Nicky Henderson, has long been a big supporter of Punchestown was an excellent starting point.

Those of us who are regulars for the big end-of-season jamboree are well aware that Henderson has always targeted the meeting and, possibly, looks on it as a most enjoyable ‘break’, free from the many stresses and strains that are so much part of Cheltenham.

Last night, however, there were indications from Henderson that Sprinter Sacre may well tackle two and a half miles at Aintree and that would certainly cast a doubt as to whether Punchestown might be on the agenda.

Besides Sprinter Sacre, however, there is likely to be a savage depth to what Punchestown will have to offer.

I mean Solwhit and Quevega promises to be utterly fascinating in a Grade 1 over three miles.

Hurricane Fly is sure to appear as well and I cannot wait to see him again. His victory in the Champion Hurdle gets no less extraordinary as the days pass by.

I saw the Channel 4 coverage of the race on the Tuesday night at Cheltenham and it seemed to me to have largely failed to capture the flat spot that the horse actually hit. It was far worse, and far more worrying, than what the Channel 4 cameras captured.

Henderson is due to bring Grandouet across to challenge Hurricane Fly and that is terrific news.

I’ve since watched the Champion Hurdle again in its entirety and there is no doubt Grandouet was full of running, and a major threat at the time, when falling at the third last. And, of course, Champion Hurdle second, Rock On Ruby, is also coming.

Could Henderson go the whole way and give us one other particularly tasty treat and bring Bobs Worth with him as well?

He’s a horse you couldn’t fail to love and the manner in which he got down and dirty when the need was greatest in the Gold Cup was sweet.

Our Conor, possibly Punchestown-bound, was magnificent in winning the Triumph Hurdle and most of us are big fans of the horse now.

But you’d have to think there is more than an element of over-reaction on the part of bookmakers in putting him in as favourite for the Champion Hurdle.

He now has an impeccable record, four from four, and those who know about such things say he put up an exceptional time at Cheltenham.

But so far he has only raced against his own age group, four-year-olds, so let’s not get too carried away, until he takes on older horses.

Mind you, there is no doubt that Our Conor is the most talented young hurdler we have seen for many a long day.

One of the most intriguing things to emerge from Cheltenham was that we seem to have an abundance of chasers coming through.

If Boston Bob hadn’t fallen at the last in the RSA Chase we would have had the first three home, to go with Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend.

Now anyone who says they saw that coming should either take over from Mystic Meg, or join the liars’ club.

Add in that Back In Focus and Tofino Bay were first and second respectively, clear of the rest, in the four-mile National Hunt Chase and it was further evidence that our up-and-coming chasers are in rude good health.

The likes of Champagne Fever, Pont Alexandre, the costliest Cheltenham failure, and so many others are all heading to Punchestown and you have got to think this promises to be its greatest festival of all time.

One other aspect of Cheltenham worth a mention and that is the continued decline of the Paul Nicholls yard.

This year he had no Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded or Big Buck’s to call on and, a bit like a team that grows old together, they have left a massive void.

You could say he was only competitive in one top race and that was with Celestial Halo, second to Solwhit in the World Hurdle.

And just how a good a race that was is open to question, with Big Buck’s missing and Oscar Whisky performing like a horse who would have been more at home in a donkey derby.

Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti was certainly unlucky in the Gold Cup, holding every chance when falling three out.

On the new course that is simply too far from home, however, to be drawing any conclusions and we would dearly like to see him coming to Punchestown.

Anyway, besides those two, Nicholls seems very short on top-class horses and the evidence of Cheltenham, sadly, is that there is little or nothing coming through.

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Saturday, December 4, 2021

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