Cheltenham hero Vanillier eyeing Festival double for Cromwell

Gavin Cromwell expects forecast conditions to prove in Vanillier’s favour at Punchestown as the impressive Cheltenham winner puts his Grade One status on the line in the Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle.

Vanillier was a revelation when he returned to winning form with abundant ease to dominate last month’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

That 11-length success followed an off-colour performance at the Dublin Festival, when Cromwell’s yard was out of form.

The County Meath trainer admits that, although he was hoping for a much-improved showing at Cheltenham, even he was surprised by Vanillier’s 14-1 triumph – on his first attempt at three miles under rules.

The six-year-old faces a new challenge on Wednesday when two fellow Cheltenham winners – Willie Mullins’ handicap victor Galopin Des Champs and Henry de Bromhead’s Grade Two heroine Telmesomethinggirl – will be among the seven-strong opposition.

Cromwell is confident, though, that spring ground will suit Vanillier.

Asked to assess what level of form will be required to follow up, he said: “I don’t really know for sure.

“The ground is probably going to be a little bit livelier again than it was at Cheltenham.

“I hope that’s OK with him. He’s come out of Cheltenham really well, and we’re happy with him going here.

“I’m hoping he can put up a similar performance.”

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Vanillier has won and finished a good second on much softer winter ground, but appeared to appreciate the absence of mud at Cheltenham.

“Yes, he did (surprise me),” added Cromwell.

“I fancied him to run a big race, but I didn’t expect him to do what he did on the day.

“We were obviously delighted with it.

“He wears a tongue strap, and that’s obviously for a reason, and I think the better ground probably helps his wind a little bit.

“So as long as it’s not too quick for him – I’m sure Punchestown are going to do a great job – it will be fine.”

There was never any temptation to try to fit in a trip to Aintree with the grey this month.

Galopin Des Champs is back in Grade One company after his handicap success at the Cheltenham Festival
Galopin Des Champs is back in Grade One company after his handicap success at the Cheltenham Festival (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“This was (always) the plan,” said Cromwell.

“We’re happy with him, and he seems in good nick, so we’re looking forward to running him.”

Vanillier’s assignment is one of three Grade Ones on day two of Punchestown’s signature meeting.

As well as the feature Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup, top honours are also up for grabs in the ITM – Supporting Irish Store Sales Champion INH Flat Race.

There is a score to settle from Cheltenham too, for Mullins’ two protagonists Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit.

Unlike in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper – which saw Sir Gerhard just lead home his stablemate in a Mullins one-two – both must be amateur ridden.

Sir Gerhard (nearside) just got the better of stablemate Kilcruit in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham
Sir Gerhard (nearside) just got the better of stablemate Kilcruit in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Patrick Mullins was unable to take the ride at Cheltenham because of coronavirus restrictions which suspended all amateur jockeys.

He had previously eulogised about the potential of Kilcruit – but in this rematch will be on board Sir Gerhard, with Derek O’Connor riding his main rival in a field of eight.

The yard is also represented by Ramillies, who could manage only eighth at Cheltenham and also finished well adrift of Kilcruit at Leopardstown in February.

Their trainer said: “Ramillies is a horse whose homework is good.

“It might not be as good as the other two – but it is good, and I still think there is a good horse lurking in there somewhere and it has to come out.

Trainer Joseph O’Brien is cautiously optimistic about the return of Eric Bloodax
Trainer Joseph O’Brien is cautiously optimistic about the return of Eric Bloodaxe (PA)

“Maybe a change of track and a flat track like Punchestown might bring it out in him.

“I think the track might suit Kilcruit better (as well), so we’ll see. It’ll be different, and worth watching anyway.”

Among the opposition, Joseph O’Brien’s Eric Bloodaxe is returning from an absence of almost 15 months since losing his unbeaten record at Leopardstown

O’Brien said: “He’s been off the track for an extended period of time, and it’ll be a big ask to go straight into a race like this.

“But he’s been training well, and we’ve targeted this race with him.

“We’re hoping he can run well.”

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