Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake has reflections on a wonderfully entertaining 2018 Punchestown Festival. With so many talking points from the five-day meeting, Kevin puts forward four which stood out for him.

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Reflections on an outstanding Punchestown Festival

On paper, this year’s Punchestown Festival had the potential to be the best one in many years. So often a scene of short-priced consolidation and confirmation of superiority established at the Cheltenham Festival rather than hosting season-defining clashes, this year was different.

The epic battle for the trainers’ title was finely poised and had resulted in both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott throwing every ounce of equine talent they could possibly muster at the meeting which combined to produce an array of intriguing clashes. However, as good as it looked on paper, not even the most creative of writers could have scripted what transpired during a quite remarkable week that really did have everything.

Before going into individual races and performances, where else can one start but with the narrative that dominated the build-up and the week itself, that of the trainers’ title. Gordon Elliott had played an absolute blinder all season long to give himself a lead of €521,414 over Willie Mullins going into the meeting. However, as hard as he tried, barring some exceptional good fortune on the first day of the meeting it proved to be Willie Mullins’ week in no uncertain terms. Mullins has traditionally thrived at the Punchestown Festival, but what he did last week was off the scale.

Mullins saddled the winner of a record 18 of the 37 races over the five days, including nine of the 12 Grade 1 races. This tally beat his previous record of 16 wins that he had secured at the meeting in 2015. Even more remarkable was that he secured €1,757,300 in prize money, another record tally that is put into context by the remarkable fact that it is more than any trainer other than Elliott secured in the entire season in Ireland.

An interesting fact within those numbers is that Mullins’ first 12 winners of the week were in the colours of 12 different owners. One valuable lesson that Mullins seems to have taken away from his loss of the Gigginstown horses is the danger of being too reliant on individual super-owners and his efforts to diversify his ownership base certainly seem to have worked in a very short space of time.

In terms of Mullins’s overall performance during the campaign, his seasonal tallies of 212 winners and €5,968,275 smashed the previous records of 193 winners and €4,580,200. It was a simply outstanding performance that has once again raised the bar of excellence in Irish National Hunt racing to new levels.

Amidst all of the Mullins success, one couldn’t help but feel for Gordon Elliott. Once again, he raised his performance to new heights this season, increasing his own seasonal-best tally of winners from 193 to 210 and his prize money haul from €4,380,705 to €5,158,751, but he was powerless to halt that quite frightening Mullins juggernaut once it hit full speed.

While this will undoubtedly be a great source of disappointment for Elliott, this campaign showed that narrow defeat in the championship a year earlier had only served to spur him on and that can be expected to be the case again in 2018/19. Elliott is still a young trainer at 40 years of age.

It is worth remembering that Willie Mullins didn’t win his first championship until he was 45 and it was the better part of a decade after that before he reached a position of dominance. Time is on Elliott’s side and it really does seem only a matter of time before he gets the championship that his talent and relentless drive deserves.

One thing for certain is that while some continue to paint the Mullins/Elliott duopoly as a negative thing for Irish National Hunt racing, this corner remains convinced that it is driving the sport to new standards of excellence in Ireland. Only the best will thrive in such a fiercely-competitive arena and that is the way it should be in every walk of life.

As two training careers reached new heights of excellence at the Punchestown Festival, two tremendous riding careers drew to a close with both Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh hanging up their boots after riding winners at the meeting. As well as having been highly-accomplished amateur jockeys that rode ten winners at the Cheltenham Festival between them, they have both proven to be brilliant ambassadors for their sport throughout their careers.

While they will be greatly missed as jockeys, that both of them opted to go out on a winner on one of the biggest stages and most importantly on their own terms is something that their legions of supporters can only be delighted with. The two of them helped raise the bar in the amateur rider ranks and they can both look back with great pride on what they achieved.

Looking back of the individual highlights and talking points of the week, there were quite literally dozens of them that would be worthy topics of discussion, but here are a handful that remained prominent in my mind long after the action had finished.

IHRB communication failures

The main talking point of opening day one was the incredibly dramatic and controversial Growise Champion Novice Chase. Enough has been said and written about it at this stage, but Paul Townend made a calamitous error of judgement in the face of a high-pressure split-second decision and the heavy punishment he received was justified.

Below, see the closing stages of a dramatic renewal of the Grade 1 Growise Novice Chase.

In every walk of life mistakes will inevitably be made and it is ultimately how the people that make them react to those mistakes that define them. Paul Townend showed great mental fortitude to come back the next day and overcome what must have been a significant amount of mental torment to ride as normal and boot home three winners.

It remains to be seen whether the IHRB react as well to their mistake of choosing not to reveal Paul’s evidence in the enquiry to the public until the morning after the event. While it was reportedly done with Townend in mind, this silence only served to stoke the fire of controversy and debate on the racecourse and on social media which did Paul Townend and Irish racing as a whole no favours.

Had an incident like this occurred at a top-class meeting in England, it is likely that the television cameras would have been in the stewards’ room for the enquiry and one of the stewards would have volunteered to be interviewed on television in the immediate aftermath of it to explain their decision if necessary. Such openness doesn’t just make for riveting and informative viewing, it serves to act as a foil for those that wish to cast aspersions on the integrity of the sport.

As has been highlighted in this space on multiple occasions over the years, the IHRB are in the dark ages when it comes to communications and there seems to be no will to change that which really is unacceptable for Irish racing.

Brilliant Un De Sceaux confirms two-mile prowess

The performance on the opening day that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved due to the focus on Paul Townend’s misfortune was Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase. This 10-year-old truly is one of the most exciting horses we have seen in the last decade and he showed that he isn’t that far off his very best by producing a typically bold front-running display to see off Douvan with plenty to spare.

It was a performance that once again reiterated just how good Un De Sceaux is at around two miles on ground with soft in the description. Indeed, he remains unbeaten and largely unchallenged in the 14 occasions he has encountered such circumstances.

Un De Sceaux wins at Punchestown
The wonderful Un De Sceaux won his ninth Grade 1 at Punchestown

As tremendous a career as he’s had, given that he was asked to contest longer trips seemingly to separate him from other two milers in the Mullins’ yard, one wonders could his record be even better had he been confined to around two miles on soft ground throughout his career. There are unlikely to have been too many horses in the last decade that could cope with the pace he sets and maintains in those conditions.

Bellshill Comes of Age

Bellshill very much put it all together in registering a comfortable success in the Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday. The level of form he showed there promises to make him a leading player in the staying chase division, but his overall record would advise caution regarding his prospects in the likes of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Not only has he failed to produce his very best on the three occasions he has run at Cheltenham, an interesting pattern develops in his form figures when one breaks them down by the direction of the tracks.

Left-handed: 20211302F3 – Two wins from 10 starts
Right-handed: 111111151 – Eight wins from nine starts

There may well prove to be nothing in it, but it is something worth considering when he embarks on his first full campaign in open Grade 1 company next season.

Kevin Blake
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