Gordon Elliott’s Don Cossack came to grief two fences from the finish when Cue Card won a thrilling King George VI Chase at Kempton over Christmas, but the boot was on the other foot at Prestbury Park last month as the Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card exited at the third-last before Don Cossack careered away to claim Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.
Cue Card got back on track with a brilliant display in last week’s Betfred Bowl at Aintree and Tizzard is keen for him to round off his campaign in Ireland on April 27.
“The plan always was to go on to Punchestown and I don’t see any reason to change that,” said the Dorset-based trainer.
“Hopefully they both jump a clear round. Don Cossack’s fallen once, we’ve fallen once and hopefully they both jump clear and we’ll see who finishes in front.”
Elliott is also looking forward to the rematch after seeing Don Cossack work over a mile and a half alongside stable companion Cause Of Causes in front of the media at Punchestown on Monday.
He said: “We haven’t done anything serious with him since then and today was the first time that he’s really stretched his legs since Cheltenham.
“Cue Card is a horse I’ve got massive respect for. It’s going to be a very good race at Punchestown.
“He (Don Cossack) will have one more good bit of work and then it’s all systems go.”
The Punchestown Gold Cup promises to be the most enthralling race of this year’s Festival, with brilliant Ryanair Chase hero Vautour, who suffered a shock fall at Aintree last Friday, also a likely runner.
Trainer Willie Mullins said: “There’s a very good chance Vautour will run in the Gold Cup.
“He’s as fit as a flea and as long as he’s sparkling at home, he’ll take his chance.”
The feature race on the first day of the Festival is the Boylesports Champion Chase, with Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sprinter Sacre the headline act among 18 possible runners.
Punchestown’s racing manager Richie Galway revealed Nicky Henderson has not yet ruled out a return to Ireland with his stable star, who claimed this prize in 2013.
Galway said: “Myself and Shona Dreaper met Nicky in Newbury recently and we said we’ve love to have Sprinter Sacre running. He said the day that he won in Punchestown for himself and the owners was one of the great days they had with Sprinter Sacre.”
Melling Chase winner God’s Own, Queen Mother runner-up Un De Sceaux, Vautour and high-class mare Vroum Vroum Mag are also on the list.
Cheltenham and Aintree hero Thistlecrack is on course for the hat-trick bid in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle and while Annie Power has this option, she is set to take on the Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle as she also looks to add to Cheltenham and Aintree strikes. Like Don Cossack, Annie Power made an appearance, enjoying a light canter with stable companion Let’s Dance.
Mullins said: “Annie Power seems fine and the plan is to go for the Champion Hurdle in Punchestown. It will only be her fourth run of the season.”
The novice events over hurdles and fences are chock full of quality, with the likes of Yorkhill, Buveur D’Air, Douvan and Native River all set to potentially star.
Mullins looks certain to unleash another formidable team over the five days.
“I imagine all the top guns will run as it’s the last big Festival of the season,” said the champion trainer.
“Yorkhill must have some engine to do what he did in Aintree the other day. If he’s recovered, he could go to Punchestown. He’s a good eater and he drinks well and he’ll get a good rest before then.
“Apple’s Jade was a revelation at Aintree. She had some training problems after Christmas and (in hindsight) we obviously didn’t have her as straight as we’d want at Cheltenham.”
Asked for a dark horse to follow, Mullins replied: “Koshari is a nice horse from France that we haven’t been able to run yet.”
Richie Galway is looking forward to the Festival and feels the presence of British-trained runners is vital.
He said: “At the moment the ground is around yielding to soft or soft. We’ve had a tough winter and the forecast for the remainder of this week is unsettled. I’d be delighted to have it in the same shape as it is today.
“We have five days of fresh ground for the hurdle track and we’ve plenty of room to manoeuvre on the chase course. The English involvement is very important and the prospect of Cue Card and Don Cossack running in the Gold Cup will be a huge attraction. Twenty per cent of our attendance is from the UK and it’s crucial to the success of the Festival.
“Colin Tizzard, Philip Hobbs, David Pipe and Paul Nicholls will all have a good team of horses coming over.”
Dick O’Sullivan, Punchestown’s General Manager, said: “These are vintage times for jump racing with some fantastic horses based both in Ireland and across the water in Britain.
“We’ve seen a series of great performances at Cheltenham and Aintree, as well as at home, in recent weeks and we are obviously thrilled that so many of the top horses look set to line up at the 2016 Punchestown Festival.
“There are some fantastic showdowns in prospect at what promises to be five magical days of racing.”