Stage set for a showdown at Punchestown
Last year’s Punchestown Festival was one of the most thrilling in recent memory. The narrative throughout the week focused on what just a year earlier would have been unthinkable, the question of whether Willie Mullins could retain his title of Champion National Hunt Trainer in Ireland or could Gordon Elliott secure a remarkable victory. It went right down to the last day, with Mullins ultimately completing a tremendous and dramatic comeback that broke Elliott’s heart.
There was a train of thought at the time that last season would prove to be Gordon Elliott’s best chance to win the trainers’ championship for the foreseeable future given that Mullins experienced multiple setbacks headlined by losing his Gigginstown horses and the likes of Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power not making it to the track, but this season has proven such thoughts to be well wide of the mark.
Indeed, the fierce battle for the championship last season has seemingly only served to light a fire under both combatants that has driven them to even greater levels of success this season.
It is no secret that losing the championship in the closing days was a huge personal blow to Elliott. That reversal has not only seen him push even harder in his recruitment of new horses, it has also seen him make a tactical adjustment in consciously skipping the Dublin Racing Festival with a number of his better horses with a view to keeping them fresher for the spring festivals in Ireland after finding his cupboard to be rather bare at last year’s Punchestown Festival.
For Mullins, the combination of losing the Gigginstown horses and then being pushed so close for the trainers’ championship seemed to make him re-evaluate his business model. Now all too aware of the dangers of being too reliant on bigger owners, he has diversified his ownership base to a great extent and his world-class team of equine scouts has been recruiting horses from all angles with a vigour never before seen.
All of these factors have culminated to see both Elliott and Mullins bring their levels of performance to all-new heights. While they started this campaign as the joint-holders of the record for number of winners in a National Hunt season with 193, they have both already exceeded that and will register final tallies well in advance of it.
As was the case last season, this battle will be decided at the Punchestown Festival and that is a battlefield that Mullins is more than comfortable on. Last year Mullins had a deficit of just over €400,000 to make up on Elliott and did it with just under €200,000 to spare having accumulated €937,075 at the meeting compared to Elliott’s €333,725.
While Elliott has a bigger advantage of €521,413 this season, it is worth remembering that Mullins had anything but a perfect week at last year’s Punchestown Festival with the likes of Un De Sceaux, Djakadam, and Nichols Canyon all finishing close seconds in highly-valuable Grade 1 races.
Indeed, one only has to look back at 2015 for a year where things went largely to plan for Mullins at the Punchestown Festival to see the potential for what he can do there, with him having 16 winners (including 10 Grade 1 races) and earning almost €1.1m in prize money.
In contrast, Elliott’s tally of €333,725 at last year’s Festival was a career-best return for him at the meeting. While he has made some adjustments to how he has campaigned his horses with a view to having some of his big guns fresher for this meeting, one suspects that Elliott will need to secure a career-best tally at the Punchestown Festival to give himself the best chance of holding off the late charge of Mullins.
That said, what is far more relevant than historical tallies at the meeting to this battle is the soldiers that each general will have on the field for them this week. While Elliott has his share of stars that are likely to be sent off favourites in Grade 1 races such as Apple’s Jade, Samcro and Farclas, it is worth noting that the Grade 1 races that all of those horses are likely to contest are worth €100,000.
What could well prove to be the decisive contests in this battle are the four Grade 1 races that are worth almost three times as much as the other Grade 1 races at €275,000 each. The significance of the fact that all four appear likely to be dominated by Willie Mullins contenders cannot be overstated.
He has an iron grip on the Champion Chase with Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min, the Stayers Hurdle with Penhill and Bacardys and the Champion Hurdle with Melon and Wicklow Brave. While he may not have the favourite for the Punchestown Gold Cup, he still has Bellshill, Djakadam, Total Recall and Killultagh Vic towards the head of the market.
These are the key races that Mullins can gain a crucial edge in and the few soldiers that Elliott has to represent him in them will need to run above themselves to help stem the flow.
As well as the simple mathematics that will dictate who is crowned Champion Trainer, this battle promises to have a significant impact on the placing and tactics of both trainers. For example, how the first day of the meeting pans out could well have a big bearing on whether Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown decide to declare Samcro for the Grade 1 novice hurdle or the Champion Hurdle on Friday.
Even more intriguingly, with both trainers likely to field a strong portion of the runners between them in a significant number of races during the week and all of the riders involved being aware of the bigger-picture implications of every finishing position in every race, don’t be surprised if we see an element of team tactics from the riders involved.
There is a precedent for this, as many will recall prior to the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at last year’s meeting the big question mark was whether the Elliott-trained Labaik would consent to start on terms. While the Elliott team had a plan to keep him walking on the approach to the tape, the Mullins runners approached the tape just before the scheduled off time which inevitably led to the runners being instructed to take a turn and almost certainly contributed to Labaik refusing to race. Of course, it could well have been an innocent error, but many took another view of it at the time.
While not everyone will be comfortable with the thought of team tactics, it certainly adds another layer of interest to what promises to be a sensational week of action. Indeed, it is fair to say that this could well be the most anticipated and deepest Punchestown Festival in a number of decades. Regardless of the results, it promises to be a fascinating and exciting spectacle. May the best team win!