Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old went into Cheltenham as the defending champion hurdler and hopes were high he could retain his crown after a confidence-boosting win at Kempton three weeks previously.
But after racing fairly prominently in the early stages, he dropped away tamely in the final half mile to finish ninth of the 12 runners.
Having won at Punchestown in 2007 and 2008 – he was also beaten a short head in this race last year – Punjabi may be sent over fences if he disappoints again.
“He’ll go to Ireland again for the Rabobank,” confirmed Tony Stafford, racing manager to Punjabi’s owner Raymond Tooth.
“Barry Geraghty said he was beaten three out, which was disappointing considering how everyone was expecting him to run. He was pretty much the first one of the fancied horses beaten.
“He’s excused one bad run. That is the first time, apart from when he fell, that he has not been in the first four over hurdles.
“I think what you have to say is that in a championship race of any kind if you are just slightly off your game you won’t win – look at the Gold Cup and Kauto Star.
“We haven’t discussed chasing yet with Nicky but it is an option, especially if he doesn’t show he is still bang up with them in Ireland.
“He’ll still only be eight next Cheltenham so he’s relatively young.”
Starluck is also likely to head for the Punchestown feature after a good run that saw him take fifth place in the Champion Hurdle.
“He’s absolutely fine and has come out of the race really well. We’ll look at going to Punchestown with him,” said trainer Alan Fleming.