Sceaux setback a big blow for Willie Mullins in title race

Willie Mullins made significant gains on Gordon Elliott in his quest to retain his trainers’ title, but suffered what could prove a fatal setback on the Punchestown festival’s opening day as the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton proved too strong for Mullins’ Un De Sceaux in the most valuable race of the day, the Grade 1 Boylesports Champion Chase.
Sceaux setback a big blow for Willie Mullins in title race

Un De Sceaux sat behind the pace-making Rock The World until taking it up down the back, and looked to have all his rivals in trouble when he jumped the fourth-last with a two-length lead.

Fox Norton was flat out all the way but Robbie Power is in formidable form and, riding a horse which looked to appreciate the step up in trip when winning the Melling Chase on his previous start, Power drove his mount to challenge between the last two, and Alan and Ann Potts’ horse found plenty to forge past the odds-on favourite for a length-and-three-quarters victory.

“It has been an unbelievable season, and to get a Grade 1 here at Punchestown for Mr and Mrs Potts is just fantastic,” said Power.

“Fox Norton needed to be brave. He was flat to the boards the whole way, as I didn’t want to give Un De Sceaux too much rope. Because of that he made one or two little mistakes, but I knew, when we turned in, we would pick them up.

“He is going to be a hard horse to beat in the Ryanair Chase next season. He wants a trip. The King George is a possibility, but Mr and Mrs Potts have another horse (Sizing John) for that race.”

The anticipated rematch between Supreme Novices’ Hurdle first and second, Labaik and Melon, did not materialise in the Champion Novice Hurdle, as the former, as is his won’t, planted his feet at the start.

That seemed to hand a huge advantage to his old adversary, but Melon’s stable-companion, Cilaos Emery, spoiled the party, with a late charge under David Mullins.

Willie Mullins, responsible for the first two home was, understandably, was not entirely bothered about the finishing order.

“It (the order of finish) didn’t matter to me, but I’d imagine Davy Russell and Ruby just took each other on and went too fast down the back,” he explained.

“Davy Russell obviously thought he had more stamina than he did, so the two of them cracked and then David (Mullins) was able to settle in behind them and come with a wet sail.

“We decided to ride Cilaos Emery a little different today and waited more, as he’s a horse that had disappointed on his last couple of runs. He has a Grade 1 now and it’s fantastic for Luke (McMahon, owner), who is a great supporter of the yard.”

Labaik may get his chance at redemption in Friday’s Champion Hurdle.

Not many horses win a race at the fifth time of asking, but that was the task facing Enniskillen prior to the festival opener, the Kildare Hunt Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase.

His past defeats and advancing years did not deter supporters, who backed him from 3-1 to 6-4. There were eventful moments, but Jamie Codd was at his best to give Peter Maher’s horse a first taste of success on the racecourse.

It was a significant success for Codd in his quest for a first qualified riders’ championship, as he stretched his lead over Patrick Mullins to three.

Western Boy was another to right a previous wrong, when winning the Killashee Handicap Hurdle for trainer Pat Fahy and jockey Jody McGarvey.

He had been travelling well on the heels of the leaders until falling at the second-last in this race in 2016, but there was no repeat this time, as he travelled equally well, took it up at the last, and won with a considerable amount in hand.

Vision Des Flos’s victory in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper proved a popular one, as he gave Robert Tyner a second consecutive victory in the race, following Coeur De Lion’s win in 2016.

The popular Kinsale trainer could be seen celebrating excitedly in the parade ring, as Derek O’Connor drove the newcomer right out to repel the renewed effort of Hollowgraphic.

Said the delighted handler: “It’s hard to do it (to win it twice in a row), but we got there. It meant more this year than last, because we were unlucky enough to lose last year’s winner, through an accident out in the field. It was very special to come back and win it again.”

The winner is owned by the winning rider’s sister-in-law, Grainne O’Connor, and was bought from Norman Williamson’s Oak Tree Farm, off whom last year’s winner was also purchased.

The Noel Meade-trained Disko, who was behind subsequent Irish Grand National winner Our Duke on Irish Gold Cup weekend at Leopardstown, having been a close third behind that same rival at the Christmas meeting at the Foxrock venue, secured a second Grade 1 of the season when running out an emphatic winner of the Growise Champion Novice Chase under Bryan Cooper.

There was scarcely a moment the six-year-old looked anything but the winner, as he cruised clear late to win by a wide margin.

Said Cooper: “He showed me more gears than I thought he would. I think he made one mistake, but other than that, he was good.”

Gordon Elliott was on the scoresheet in the finale, as newcomer Roaring Bull capped a brilliant season for jockey Lisa O’Neill, who had already won the Kerry National and the four-mile chase at Cheltenham.

  • The attendance on day one was 19,686, marginally down on the same day last year, but Tote turnover was down significantly, from €863,147 to €773,189.

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