Matt Tombs / Tuesday 23rd April 2013 / 10:30
The Punchestown Festival has grown in importance and the quality on show this year will probably be the best ever – its likely 3 of the 4 championship race winners at Cheltenham (Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre and Solwhit) will run, plus the 2nd and 3rd home in the other, (Sir Des Champs and Long Run). There’s a fantastic weeks racing in prospect and I can’t wait to get there and see Sprinter Sacre.
Given it’s so late in the season, this meeting can be a minefield for punters as you have to work out which horses are over the top and which can take another run. That’s still the case, although with many horses running so infrequently during the winter now to keep them fresh for Cheltenham, it might be that more will be able to give their true running here.
My rough rule of thumb is that in open company, stayers are more likely to be over the top. As many novices have been on the go for a long time, (to get experience,) they often are too. By contrast, 2milers in open company have a better chance of holding their form and I don’t expect Hurricane Fly or Sprinter Sacre to get turned over this week.
The obvious betting race is the open staying chase (3m1f) as it’s priced up similarly to how the Gold Cup would have been priced had this been the field, rather than factoring in Cheltenham exertions. The likes of Kauto Star and Denman have run miles below form in this in recent years and the last 3 winners have started at 20/1, 20/1 and 14/1 – the last 2 being rated just 152.
This year’s Gold Cup was run in the slowest time since Desert Orchid won and must have been a really hard race for the principals. Sir Des Champs (2/1) was absolutely out on his feet close home and there must be a strong chance he won’t have got over that yet. For exchange players he looks a lay for a place. Long Run (4/1) also had a hard race in the Gold Cup and whilst he didn’t look to finish quite as tired, this is still a big ask as he’s also had a slog in the King George. Captain Chris (7/1) also ran in the Gold Cup and jumped continually right, eventually completing in a 35l 6th. This right-handed track will suit much better but he’d prefer quicker ground and has had a tough season so I’m happy to oppose him too.
The obvious one is First Lieutenant (5/1) who won the Bowl over this trip at Aintree after chasing home Cue Card in the Ryanair. I’m not convinced that proved he stayed the trip as Silviniaco Conti looked to be feeling the effects of his Gold Cup exertions and Menorah is also a doubtful stayer. That was on good ground and given the stamina concerns on the likely soft ground here, I’m passing him over.
Instead I’m chancing Quito De La Roque (20/1) who has a great chance of finding the 8¾l he finished behind First Lieutenant at Aintree, where neither the sharp course nor the sound surface suited. He looked back to his best when interrupting Roi Du Mee’s 6 race winning spree over an inadequate 2m4f at Thurles, (soft to heavy,) and bolted up here in the Grade 1 novice chase 2 seasons ago after a long season. This track and testing ground should suit ideally - he looks cracking each way value given it’s questionable whether those at the front of the market will show their form here.
1pt each way Quito De La Roque in the Punchestown Gold Cup @ 20/1
We don’t have the final declarations through for the open 3m hurdle yet. No horse has won an open Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown Festivals since Istabraq 14 years ago, (though Sprinter Sacre will probably achieve that treble on Tuesday). Attempting that treble in staying races is a whole lot harder and Solwhit (11/8) has apparently been quiet since Aintree. Quality performer though he is, he’s the classic sort to get beaten at Punchestown.
Virtually no horse in history has continually been given a lighter campaign that Quevega (13/8) who has a stroll round in the mares race at Cheltenham and then wins this. She’s 9 now but she hasn’t been beaten for 4 years and probably put up her best performance in this race last year when sluicing through the mud to beat Voler La Vedette more convincingly than Big Buck’s had done in the World Hurdle. Whilst I wouldn’t take that line of form too literally, I suspect 3m and soft ground is ideal now and coming here a fresh horse she’ll take all the beating.
The other one with obvious claims is Reve De Sivola (8/1) who won the Long Walk easily on bad ground and having won at this meeting 3 years ago, should be suited by ground and track. He’s had some tough races this season though and I doubt he can give 7lb to a fresh Quevega.
1pt Quevega to win the World Series Hurdle @ 13/8
The Grade 1 2m novice hurdle on the opening day looks a cracker with Supreme 1st and 3rd Champagne Fever and Jezki re-opposing. I’d have really fancied Jezki (13/8) to reverse the form on good ground, but he isn’t anything like the same force on soft and has looked better going left-handed so far. Similarly Ted Veale (16/1) would have been really interesting on good ground at a big price, as I think he’s a whole lot better than a handicapper. The ground has gone against him as well though. With Rule The World (9/2) looking to need a fair bit further that leaves Champagne Fever (13/8) with an obvious chance but I wouldn’t want to take a short price about him after a longish season so it’s a race to leave alone.
The other Grade 1 on the first day is the 3m1f novice chase in which you can make a case for all 8 runners. Surprisingly both the Mullins/Wylie pair run and Ruby Walsh picked Back In Focus (100/30). With the ground in his favour, he has a sound chance but his odds reflect that. Boston Bob (7/2) apparently just started coming to himself in the run up to the RSA and looked likely to win when falling at the last. However, you get the impression Willie Mullins has struggled to get him right all season and with Ruby deserting him I can’t back him here.
Lyreen Legend (11/2) was just run out of it close home in the RSA and the softer ground here should suit. He’s the sort of tough horse that could well produce his best at the end of a long season. If Mount Benbulben (18/1) can get his jumping together he could belie those odds as the step up to 3m1f should suit.
Preference though is for Harry Topper (11/2) who beat Benefficient (who gave 3lb) 1½l at Newbury in a Grade 2 and, with ground to suit, is a big price against rivals with arguably less good form. Prior to Cheltenham, the consensus was that the Irish novices must be ordinary as they kept finishing in a heap in the top races. Afterwards everyone was saying they were better than their British counterparts, especially at staying trips - but I think the fact that the best British novices, (Dynaste, Harry Topper, Rocky Creek etc,) didn’t run in the RSA may have created a false impression of Irish superiority in the division.
Testing ground suits Harry Topper and he should be fresher than some of his rivals. I think he should be challenging for favouritism so 5/1 is well worth taking.
1pt Harry Topper to win the Champion Novice Chase @ 5/1
Later in the week, the 2m Grade 1 novice chase should shed some light on a murky pecking order in the division. Arvika Ligeonniere looked to go amiss in the Arkle and Baily Green lost a shoe when flopping at Aintree in the Grade 1 won by Special Tiara, who might not get home in the ground here. All 3 are chancy propositions and if Willie Mullins decides to run Twinlight he might be the value. He’s a pure 2 miler and beat Baily Green (who gave 3lb) here in November – he’s the type to be underestimated.
The big hunter chase on Friday looks a cracking renewal with Chapoturgeon and Tammy’s Hill taking on champion Salsify and Cheltenham hard luck story Oscar Delta. The ground will be crucial here – if it’s dried out to have the word yielding in the description, than Salsify will be hard to beat. I’d fancy Tammy’s Hill to turn him over on testing ground.
If there’s a handicap blot during the week it could be Harry Fry’s King Of The Night who’s entered in the valuable 2m5f novice’s handicap chase on Friday. He was rated 157 over hurdles after demolishing a decent field in a handicap at Kempton off 143 eighteen months ago. He was a good 5l 3rd to Carlito Brigante at Cheltenham in October and back from a break 3 weeks ago he chased home Theatrical Star who’s gone in again since. He’s been dropped 17lb for that and looks dangerously well handicapped off 132.