THE curtain comes down on the jumping season this week with a five-day Punchestown festival which will rival anything that we have seen at Cheltenham.
The sight of Sprinter Sacre is bound to swell the crowd on the opening day but there will be some other mouth-watering clashes down for decision as the week progresses.
Since he has gone chasing Sprinter Sacre has certainly captured the imagination of the racing public and he has yet to seen off the bridle in his nine starts over the major obstacles. He is the highest rated English national hunt horse of all time and there are many who rate him as the best two miler we have seen since the incomparable Flyingbolt all those years ago.
Willie Mullins will have his usual strong team on duty including the reigning Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly, however the clash of his star Quevega and the World hurdle winner Solwhit will be one of the races of the meeting.
When this pair last met four years ago Solwhit came out on top but they have enjoyed contrasting fortunes ever since. While Quevega has gone on to record a string of successes, including a five-timer in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham, Solwhit’s career has been blighted by injury. He made a triumphant return to action this season and was an impressive winner of the three mile World Hurdle at the Cotswolds festival and latterly captured the Grade One at Aintree during the Grand National meeting.
Dessie Hughes has transformed Our Conor from an average handicapper on the level to one of the hottest properties in the hurdling game, he simply destroyed his field in the triumph Hurdle and he will be on view again in the champion four-year-old hurdle. Now sporting the silks of Barry Connell, he is already among the favourites for hurdlings blue riband at Cheltenham next term.
These are just a couple of examples to whet the appetite about what should be a week to remember. Willie Mullins already has the trainers’ title sewn up but is likely to set figures that will never surpassed, while Davy Russell is on course to retain his rider’s crown.
Naas proved a testing venue on Saturday but it did not stop Jim Bolger’s electrifying start to the season as he took the mile apprentice handicap courtesy of Confident Cub.
Given a stylish ride by 18-year-old Dylan Robinson, the Bachelor Duke gelding was settled in mid division. Making smooth progress to hit the front at the two furlong marker, Robinson kept him up to his work to beat Stoichkhov by a length and three-parts. A second win for the rider, more will be heard of him in the future.
Bolger was confidently expected to take the mile three-year-old conditions race with Caesaria, but the recent Curragh winner found precious little when the tempo was upped at the two marker and finished a disappointing third. Victory went to Talitha Kum from the Paul Deegan yard under a strong ride by Chris Hayes.
Leading after a furlong or so, Talitha Kum found plenty inside the last furlong to hold off the Aidan O’Brien runner Fortify. Well regarded by Deegan, the winner is likely to contest the 1.000 Guineas Derrinstown Stud Derby Trail at Leopardstown on her next appearance.
Hayes went on to complete a brace when joining forces with trainer Harry Rogers to capture the 73-95 handicap over six furlongs with Allegra Talk. Breaking smartly, the seven-year-old never saw another rival as she came home a length and three-quarters in front of Theyturnedmedown.
On a recent visit to Dermot Weld’s Rosewell House the trainer revealed that his string is a shade backwards and that it will be the second half of the season before he gets going properly. However, this did not stop him saddling Pay Day Kitten to take the opening mile maiden for three-year-olds at the expense of favourite Hold The Line from the Danesfort stable of Pat Shanahan.
After tracking the leaders Pay Day Kitten came under pressure with a couple of furlongs to race, but reeled in Hold The Lind close to home to take the money by half a length.
Described by Weld as a tough filly, Pay Day Kitten will now be stepped up in class. The fact that the first pair finished six lengths ahead of King of The Romans in third would suggest that it won’t be long before Hold The Line sheds his maiden tag.