Matt Tombs / Wednesday 30th April 2014 / 20:10
The Punchestown manager, Richie Galway, originally stated that the pre Festival watering would be sufficient – but it now appears as if watering will occur after each days racing. This followed comments from Willie Mullins on Tuesday which suggested he might withdraw some of his high profile runners later in the week if the ground got any quicker. Conditions looked pretty similar on the first two days but the real relevance is for Thursday’s racing. There’s rain forecast and if a material amount falls on watered ground, the going could be a lot slower than for the first two days.
The big race on the Thursday of the Punchestown Festival is the World Series Hurdle over 3m, which just edges out the equivalent race at Cheltenham for this season’s silliest title of a Grade 1 award.
It features the 2nd leg of what’s become the Quevega (11/10) spring double. For the last 4 years, she’s followed up her win in the calmer waters of the mares’ race at the Festival, by beating the Grade 1 geldings in this. This looks much more her trip nowadays and whilst I think she handles testing ground well, (heavy for her last two wins here), Willie Mullins has often said she wants a decent surface. The cotton wool tactics mean she always comes here a fresh horse and she’ll be tough to beat again.
At Fishers Cross (5/1) was strongly fancied by many for the World Hurdle at the start of the season. He was disappointing earlier in the season, plagued by jumping errors and back problems, but recovered his form to be a solid 6½l 3rd to More Of That in a strong World Hurdle and 1l 2nd to Whisper at Aintree.
He lost a shoe at Aintree early on and started jumping right, which wouldn’t have helped. Equally, he finished nearly 7l further in front of Zarkandar at Aintree than he did at Cheltenham, so it might be Whisper is just better than he’s been given credit for. Whilst it turned out to be the wrong decision to pass More Of That over for At Fishers Cross at Cheltenham, it’s indicative of how good Tony McCoy thinks At Fishers Cross is - and he’s been bullish about his chances here.
Fingal Bay (8/1) was described two seasons ago by Philip Hobbs as potentially the best he’s trained and he was well fancied for the Neptune before injury intervened. His novice chasing campaign the following season was also cut short by injury but he’s returned over hurdles this year to win both starts, the latter in the Pertemps Final off top weight, (148.) That form has been franked, (albeit mainly over fences,) and he’d have won more clearly but for flattening the last. He’s relatively fresh and is a class act so shouldn’t be underestimated here.
The rain hasn’t yet come for Bog Warrior (12/1) and whilst I think this fragile type just finds jumping hurdles easier than fences, I’d be surprised if he runs unless there is plenty of rain. If he does, it’s hard to know how much of his ability he retains after breaking down when clear and looking in command in last season’s World Hurdle. He did look good though when beating Baily Green over fences last time, (on his favoured heavy ground). If a lot of rain falls by post time, this may be one last chance for him to show how good he is.
The reality is that given Quevega has only run in a weak race so far this season, we just don’t know how much ability she retains. On lines of form with More Of That and Glen’s Melody from this season she has a lot to find with At Fishers Cross - but that was the case last season and she hosed up. She’s just been covered by Beat Hollow so this may be her last race and it would be great if she could go out on a high.
However, I don’t want to take 11/10 about a 10 year old mare, who scrambled home in a moderate event on her only run this season. At the prices it’s not easy to pick between At Fishers Cross and Fingal Bay. Fingal Bay is fresher which can count for a lot at this stage, but At Fishers Cross has come back to form this spring and is a clear pick on this season’s form.
1pt At Fishers Cross to win the World Series Hurdle (5.30) at 5/1
The Grade 1 novice chase over 2m brings together various formlines of the top novices. Balder Succes (11/4) missed Cheltenham and was fresh for Aintree where he was a good winner of the Grade 1 Maghull, (Trifolium 4½l behind in 3rd.) He jumped well there and showed lots of speed, having previously proved his stamina by winning the Pendil over 2½m at Kempton.
As Alan King says, fences look to have made a man of him, and the only real blemish on his record was at Sandown in December when the yard was about to shut down. Whilst he’s done particularly well on flat tracks, he’s looked to handle the undulations at Cheltenham and Ascot in the past and I’m not particularly worried about the course. He really looks to be on an upward curve and has strong claims here.
The Arkle form is represented by 2nd Champagne Fever (6/4) and 3rd Trifolium (7/1). With Trifolium just over 4l behind Champagne Fever at Cheltenham and Balder Succes at Aintree, you’d imagine his 2 conquerors ought to end up close together. However, I’m sweeter on Balder Succes who looked to win with a bit in hand at Aintree, whereas Champagne Fever was obviously all out when chinned in the Arkle. It’s hard to understand why Champagne Fever is favourite, let alone a short priced, clear favourite. That’s especially the case as he disappointed at this meeting last season when thrashed by Jezki.
Given that he stays well at the trip, I think Balder Succes is more likely to improve for the switch here from Aintree than Champagne Fever is for the switch from Cheltenham. I think the market has them the wrong way round.
The problem is that Willie Mullins has given Felix Yonger (8/1) the opportunity to show what he can do against the top 2m novices on what’s potentially good ground. I got stuck into him for the Arkle in the autumn after he beat subsequent Grade 1 winner Defy Logic at Punchestown and thrashed Arkle 3rd Trifolium at Navan. He got stuck in the mud on his next two runs and then didn’t look to get the trip in the JLT. It may be that he’s just not as good as I thought, but 2m on a sound surface looks ideal and he looks to have been underestimated.
Having put up Ted Veale (22/1) at both Cheltenham and Aintree only for his jumping to let him down, I can’t back him at the moment. He has the inherent class for this though and if he puts in a clear round he could belie those odds.
This race presents a difficult choice – between the horse I followed for 2m good ground novice chases all season (Felix Yonger) and the horse who has looked the real 2m novice star this spring (Balder Succes.) The ground is the key here and with more watering occurring and the possibility of rain, it could easily go against Felix Yonger, so Balder Succes gets the vote.
1pt Balder Succes to win the Ryanair Novice Chase (6.40) @ 11/4
As well as the Grade 1 novice chase over 2m, lovers of watching horses jump fences at speed can also enjoy the 2m handicap chase. This is a typically competitive event but I’ve been waiting to see Art Of Logistics (12/1) in a 2m handicap on decent ground.
I was surprised he ran in the 2½m novices handicap at the Festival (off 139) rather than the Grand Annual. He was backed into joint favouritism there but didn’t jump well enough and was never a factor. He’s been dropped 3lb to 136 and, back over 2m, if his jumping is back to what it was when winning here in the autumn, (admittedly in the calmer waters of a 5 runner novice), then he could be lobbed in off 136.
1pt Art Of Logistics to win the Three.ie Handicap Chase (4.15) @ 12/1