Inside Track with John McIntyre
THE backdrop to the upcoming Punchestown National Hunt Festival is virtually the same as 12 months ago. Just like 2017, the build-up to Ireland’s season finale is dominated by the battle for the trainers’ championship between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, who got the perfect pre-meeting boost by landing the Aintree Grand National with the gallant Tiger Roll last Saturday.
Twelve months ago, Elliott looked almost banker material to win the title for the first time, carrying a prizemoney lead of almost €400,000, but Mullins has been dominating the Punchestown festival for almost a decade and with a multitude of candidates for the Grade Ones, he had managed to erode the deficit ahead of the final day of the meeting.
Ultimately, Mullins secured the trainers’ championship for the tenth consecutive time despite some high-profile reversals for Yorkhill, the ill-fated Nicholls Canyon and Penhill – a scenario which underlines the sheer quality of jumping talent in the yard. Elliott was naturally gutted to be pipped at the post, but most punters now anticipate that he is about to make up for that disappointment next week.
For starters, his lead in prizemoney terms – the trainers’ championship is based on the amount of prizemoney won rather than a stable’s number of winners – is over €100,000 greater than in 2017 while Elliott also looks to have a stronger team for the Grade Ones, notably in crack novice Samcro, Triumph Hurdle winner Farclas and Apple’s Jade, despite a below-par run at Cheltenham last month.
Elliott has made no secret of how much winning a first trainers’ title would mean to him and with the yard’s man backer, the O’Leary brothers owned Gigginstown Stud, already publicly declaring that they will be throwing everything at Punchestown to get their man over the line, the scene is set for a battle-royale over the five-day festival.
Of course, such an outcome would probably vindicate the decision by Michael and Eddie O’Leary – at least, in their own heads – to pull all their horses out of Mullins’ yard in the Autumn of 2016 in a reported row over training fees. That parting of ways adds an extra layer of intrigue to the showdown for the trainers’ championship and don’t be fooled by both camps being publicly gracious to one another. This is a classic sporting war.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.