Five things we learned at the Punchestown Festival

Does Gordon Elliott have an heiress to Annie Power's throne?
Five things we learned at the Punchestown Festival

Fox Norton is adaptable

After he steered Fox Norton to an emphatic victory over two and a half miles in the Melling Chase at Aintree earlier this month, Robbie Power nominated the three-mile King George next Christmas as a suitable long-term target for the Colin Tizzard-trained seven-year-old.

We don’t yet know if Fox Norton would stay three miles but the suspicion is that this horse’s biggest asset might just be his versatility. After all, he got to within a head of Special Tiara over two miles in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Still, given how he seemed to relish the extra half mile at Aintree, it was still something of a surprise to see him revert to the minimum distance in the BoyleSports Champion Chase on the opening day of the Punchestown Festival.

He found the quicker pace tough to live with, Power reporting his mount was “flat to the boards the whole way”. Nevertheless, he managed to draw level with Un De Sceaux  at the final fence before pulling a length and three quarters clear by the line.

It was a hugely impressive effort and Fox Norton is a horse that should be kept onside next season.  Ante-post betting is paved with danger but 14/1 looks a tempting price for the King George.

Coneygree remains a force to be reckoned with

Wednesday’s Punchestown Gold Cup was an absolute belter, just a length and a half separating the first three home.

Understandably, the victorious Sizing John took most of the headlines after showing he has guts as well as class to complete a Gold Cup treble.

However, generally, it takes more than one horse to make a great race and the performances of Djakadam in second and British raider Coneygree in third warrant huge credit.

It was hard to know what to expect from Coneygree on just his third start since he memorably won the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Yes, it was predictable he’d set a brisk pace in a bid to draw the sting from his rivals but no-one knew if, at the age of 10, he still retained the ability  he showed when winning the Gold Cup. How he’d cope on ground quicker than ideal was a further worry.

However, he showed he retained both his ability and his enthusiasm for the game with a brilliant display. He might even have won but for a mistake two out when he still held a narrow lead. However, the way he rallied thereafter warrants huge praise.  He is clearly a delicate sort but the suspicion is there’s another big race win left in him.

Fayonagh is a potential superstar

The one negative to a fantastic week at Punchestown was the continued absence of wondermare Annie Power and the realisation that we have almost certainly seen the last of the mum-to-be on the racecourse. She was, without a doubt, the finest mare National Hunt racing has seen since Dawn Run but, it’s possible the heir to Annie’s crown was in action last week.

The Gordon Elliott-trained Fayonagh already had a tall reputation before last week after coming from last to first to land the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. She showed an astonishing turn of foot that day and while her display at Punchestown was less dramatic, it was no less impressive as she made all the running to win the Racing Post Champion INH Flat Race by five lengths.

As Elliott licks his wounds after missing out on the trainers’ title, he can take comfort in the knowledge that in Fayonagh he has a hugely talented mare to go to war with next season.

Power and Harrington equals success

To say 2017 has been kind to Robbie Power and Jessica Harrington would be the understatement of the decade.

If neither had a winner last week they would still have had much to be proud about. In truth, a winless week was never likely.

By Saturday evening, Harrington  had saddled five winners, a tally match only by Gordon Elliott and surpassed only by Willie Mullins’ haul of nine.

Power ended the week as leading jockey having ridden six winners. Given their form of recent months, it was only fitting that they excelled last week. The exciting thing for both is that things may get even better next season.

Never underestimate Willie Mullins

How did he do it? Willie Mullins went into the Punchestown Festival over 400,000 behind Gordon Elliott in the race to be crowned Ireland’s champion trainer.  By the end of the week he had retained the title for a 10th year in succession by a margin just 500 shy of 200,000.

But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Mullins produced this most remarkable of comebacks despite the fact he failed to win the feature race on each of the first three days.

He pulled it off despite the fact star jockey Ruby Walsh only managed to win two races all week.

He prevailed despite the fact Elliott managed to win three Grade Ones coming down the stretch. It shouldn’t have been possible but somehow the Closutton maestro made it possible. It was an act escapology Harry Houdini would have been proud of.

Leading trainers

9: Willie Mullins.

5: Jessica Harrington, Gordon Elliott.

3: Colin Tizzard.

2: Harry Fry.

1: Peter Maher, Peter Fahy, Robert Tyner, Noel Meade, Jonathan Sweeney, Shay Slevin, Neil Mulholland, Mark Fahey, Graham John McKeever, Dermot McLoughlin, John Paul Brennan, Philip Dempsey, Peter Fahey.

Leading jockeys

6: Robbie Power.

4: Patrick Mullins.

3: Jamie Codd, Bryan Cooper.

2: Noel Fehily, Jody McGarvey, Derek O’Connor, Ruby Walsh.

1:  Danny Mullins, Lisa O’Neill, Ryan Tracey, Paul Townend, Mark Walsh, Barry Cash, Jonjo O’Neill Jnr, Richard Deegan, Jack Kennedy, MJ O’Hare, B Walsh, Niall Madden, Katie Walsh.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox