Punchestown: Queen of the Banks Nina Carberry primed for more glory
PUNCHESTOWN is the showpiece of the Irish National Hunt scene, and really marks the last of the big festivals following Cheltenham and Aintree. Many Cheltenham and Aintree heroes from both sides of the Irish Sea will converge on the Naas track to do battle once more.
The likes of Gold Cup winner Sizing John, Un De Sceaux and many others will compete over the course of the five-day event, and we will have you covered with tips and previews for every race.
15:40 - Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase For The Ladies Perpetual Cup
This is not the most illustrious field we will see this week, but it is a competitive opener for the 2017 festival where the vote goes with NEED TO KNOW (4/1). This nine-year-old has some good form over big distances and so this three-mile test will be right up his street. He was pulled up when fancied at Downpatrick in March but bounced back well to finish second in a point-to-point last time out at Courtown over the same distance as today.
Before that, he beat the admirable GRAND JESTURE in another point-to-point, while he also holds form with today's likely favourite, TREO EILE. That one has won its last two starts, making it a worthy favourite, and he also beat the selection in a point-to-point last May, but just over a length separated them, and NEED TO KNOW looks to be sharper now. ENNISKILLEN is the other threat in this field and should give Jamie Codd a good spin over the three-mile trip.
16:20 - Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (Grade 1)
A mouth-watering rematch between the Supreme winner LABAIK (5/2) and the runner-up MELON (5/4). It is also a clash between top trainers Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, the first of many battles due throughout the week. More is expected of MELON, who has had only two starts, including that run behind LABAIK at Cheltenham, where he was just over two lengths in arrears. The bookies clearly think MELON will reverse the form but LABAIK was so impressive at Cheltenham, it's hard to see, based on that performance, why that would happen. In truth, they've more than likely flip-flopped the odds because of LABAIK's quirky nature. Jockey Jack Kennedy, although still a teenager, has said LABAIK is the fastest horse he has ever sat on, and he certainly showed all of that class when making his sweeping run past the field coming up the Cheltenham hill last month.
However, he has refused to race before and was 100 lengths behind FORGE MEADOW on a recent start, so there certainly are chinks in his armor. However, it was hard not to be taken with his performance at Cheltenham and if he reproduces that, not even a Willie Mullins hotpot will be good enough to keep pace with him. He's quirky but very special and therefore a risk is taken on him at 5/2 to get the job done. CILAOS EMERY could be a danger, but the top two should be clear coming to the line here.
16:55 - Killashee Handicap Hurdle (Grade B)
A difficult handicap hurdle to work out where ROCONGA (3/1) is the current favourite for Edward O'Grady. Wearing the JP McManus colours, ROCONGA (3/1) comes here on the back of a win on the flat at Cork. He also won his most recent hurdles start, beating RUNYON RATTLER by five lengths. That was in August 2016, and before that he was quite a distance in arrears to ELUSIVE IVY at this festival last year, so we are opposing him with the one right at the bottom of the weights, DAKOTA MOIRETTE (20/1). I'm happy to put a line through his most recent run at Fairyhouse over Easter where he was more than 20 lengths behind stablemate FRIDAYNIGHTLIGHTS. Before that he was competitive, finishing nine lengths behind FLYING TIGER in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham. He was just three lengths behind PROJECT BLUEBOOK that day, a horse who got his head in front the next day at Fairyhouse.
The Fred Winter is working out fairly well, with the second, DIVIN BERE, going on to finish a close second behind the extremely impressive DEFI DU SEUIL in the Doom Bar at Aintree. DAKOTA MOIRETTE (20/1) carries just 10st 2lbs here and also has a seven-pound claimer on his back. That should be enough to see him competitive at a more than attractive each-way price.
17:30 - BoyleSports Champion Chase (Grade 1)
It's hard to look past UN DE SCEAUX (10/11) in this race and therefore the forecast market will be very popular. I honestly think it is a case of which horse can chase him home, and there are two main contenders in my eyes. The first is FOX NORTON, tipped by The Punter's Eye when winning at Aintree last time out. He slammed SUB LIEUTENANT by six lengths in the Melling Chase but this will be tougher over just two miles, up against the lightning fast UN DE SCEAUX. Willie Mullins' star has run at Punchestown three times and won on each occasion. He loves the track, loves the distance and could get more favourable ground if the rain forecast arrives overnight. He tends to like a cut in the ground but found no problems with drying ground at Cheltenham where he looked as good as ever. He's won three races on the bounce now since having a short spell in France last summer, and looks completed rejuvenated. His jumping has sharpened up and I think he'll put these rivals to the sword on Tuesday.
The second contender that could chase him home is GOD'S OWN, who has won two from two at the track. He was disappointing at Aintree last time, finishing more than 20 lengths behind FOX NORTON, but before that he was within seven lengths of SPECIAL TIARA in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. He loves Punchestown, will handle the ground well, and could finish his race off better than most behind UN DE SCEAUX if Willie Mullins' charge sets a healthy pace.
18:05 - Goffs Land Rover Bumper
A notoriously difficult race to unravel where many horses make their racecourse debuts. Some of these have run in a point-to-point race before today, with only one or two tasting real racetrack action. RAPID ESCAPE (7/4) is the favourite following his wide margin (10 lengths) success in a point-to-point in February. Jamie Codd takes the ride for Gordon Elliott and this horse could be very good in time for the Gigginstown House team.
However, I'd be tempted to go for EARLY DOORS (7/2) for Joseph O'Brien. This one made its debut at Punchestown in February, winning handsomely, and has subsequently been purchased by JP McManus. Patrick Mullins will take the ride, and again, this one could be special in time for top connections.
18:40 - Growise Champion Novice Chase (Grade 1)
DISKO (EVENS) is the strong favourite here largely because he beat subsequent Irish Grand National winner OUR DUKE at Leopardstown in February. He followed that run with a good third behind YORKHILL in the JLT at Cheltenham in March and is respected here. However, ACAPELLA BOURGEOIS (6/1) is massively interesting back in Ireland after a trip to Cheltenham last month. He tried to go with the favourite early in the RSA chase at the festival and paid for that enthusiasm when it came to the crunch that day.
He's likely to have things his own way here, and his run before Cheltenham was outstanding. He beat ROAD TO RESPECT by 32 lengths at Navan, and that rival franked the form at both Cheltneham and Fairyhouse subsequently, winning impressively at both festivals. That Navan run now represents very strong form and therefore ACAPELLA BOURGEOIS can put last month's poor run behind him here. The ground and distance will be no problem and Sandra Hughes could be in the winner's enclosure on Tuesday evening.
19:15 - Dooley Insurances Flat Race
Another puzzle to round off the card on Day 1 of Punchestown where a host of horses will get their first look at a racetrack. It could be a case of putting a pin in the page for many punters, but for this instance, we'll go with a top yard in serious form. Jessica Harrington has JETEZ (14/1) in this one, and this four-year-old is closely related to former Champion Hurdler JEZKI. JEZKI also wore these famous orange colours early in his career before being purchased for his most illustrious run by JP McManus, and perhaps this well-bred gelding will also be very good in time.
CORNELIUS SULLA (4/1) will perhaps be the most popular option because he has the most racecourse experience, but with so many unknowns, a small each-way bet on the likes of JETEZ (14/1) is more advisable than getting on the favourite.
15:40 - Need To Know - WIN - 4/1
16:20 - Labaik - WIN - 5/2 (NAP)
16:55 - Dakota Moirette - EW - 20/1
17:30 - Un De Sceaux/God's Own - Forecast
18:05 - Early Doors - WIN - 7/2
18:40 - Acapella Bourgeois - WIN - 6/1 (NB)
19:15 - Jetez - EW - 14/1