Annie Power is the new favourite for next month’s Stan James Champion Hurdle following her comeback victory in Punchestown yesterday and news that reigning champion Faugheen has been ruled out of the race due to a suspensory injury.
Off the track since the Punchestown Festival last year, Annie Power was sent off at 1/20 to see off two clearly inferior rivals in the Punchestown.com Mares Hurdle and she did so with the minimum of fuss, making all to initiate a treble for Ruby Walsh and a double for her trainer Willie Mullins.
Wearing a hood in public for the first time, but clearly fresh for her return to action, Annie Power dictated the pace, enjoyed a near twenty lengths lead turning to the second last flight and won, hard held, by six and a half from Legacy Gold, which got the better of a battle with Melbourne Lady for second spot.
“Everything went according to plan,” acknowledged Willie Mullins.
“She was very keen, but that was to be expected. She was always going to be fresh, but the hood helped her (she wears it all the time at home) and she settled fine. At least she’s had a run.”
News of Faugheen’s injury had broken in the minutes before Annie Power’s win and Mullins was non-committal about her Cheltenham plans, explaining: “All the options are open to her and I suppose the balls are bouncing a bit differently today.
“She has a lot of training to do and we’ll see how she progresses and chat with the owners.”
And he quipped: “It’s not often I miss an entry for Cheltenham,” referring to the fact that Annie Power would have to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle, if he and owner Rich Ricci decide to let her take her chance in the big race, already a target for Mullins’ Arctic Fire, Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici.
“I’ve always considered her a two and a half mile mare, but she has enough speed to drop back to two miles,” he added.
Annie Power was installed 2/1 favourite by both Paddy Power and Ladbrokes for the Champion Hurdle.
Bellow Mome provided Mullins with his second winner of the afternoon and provided Walsh with the middle leg of a treble when getting the better of Lip Service by a half-length in the Festival Party Pack Maiden Hurdle.
“That was a pleasant surprise, because I didn’t think he’d handle the (heavy) ground,” said Mullins. “But he jumped well and the short trip probably helped.
“He wants better ground and we’ll look at Fairyhouse and Punchestown with him.”
Ruby Walsh completed his treble on Robin Thyme in the INH Stallion Owners Maiden Hurdle to provide trainer Gordon Elliott (at the Brightwells Sale in Cheltenham) with a notable milestone as he became only the fourth Irish trainer to register a century of National Hunt winners in Ireland in a season.
Robin Thyme was described as “a real staying chaser in the making” by Elliott’s assistant Ollie Murphy who added: “Anything he does over hurdles is a bonus.”
And he added, “Gordon has been aiming for the hundred winners for some time. It’s a great achievement.”
Without Limites, ridden by Finny Maguire, made all to justify 4/7 favouritism in the three-runner four-year-old bumper, romping to a twelve lengths success over Cadeau Du Bresil.
Winning trainer Liz Doyle commented: “It’s nice to replace a nice horse (Le Vent D’Antan) with another nice horse, for the same syndicate. I bought him a yearling in France and I think he’s a good prospect.
“He may run once more this season, but I’m not sure where.”
County Cork trainer Jonathan Sweeney registered his second racecourse success when Ambrose McCurtin partnered Ballybrowney Ella to a gutsy win over Midnight Theatre in the mares maiden hurdle.
Sweeney admitted: “I thought she’d win in Fairyhouse the last day, but the ground was very deep and she couldn’t handle it.
“But she’s tough and will be better on better ground. I’m not sure where she’ll go next, but she looks a chaser going forward.”
Both handicaps on this all-hurdle card were won by favourites as That’s A Wrap, confidently handled by Mark Walsh, and Luckyinmilan, whose rider Ian McCarthy picked-up a two-day ban for excessive whip use, landed the spoils.
Trained for J P McManus by Tom Mullins, That’s A Wrap got the better of Tyrone Tiger, prompting his trainer to admit: “He learned a nice bit from Fairyhouse, his first run in a handicap, and quickened away well when he was asked.
“He won’t be hurdling for long – he loves jumping and will be a chaser.”
Although probably not suited by Punchestown’s tight inner track, Luckyinmlan recorded his second win in his last three starts for Oliver McKiernan in the Festival Hospitality Handicap Hurdle, staying on dourly under McCarthy’s driving to beat Twiss’s Hill by two lengths.
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