Gordon Elliott must count himself fortunate that a trainers’ title lead of €520,000 remained relatively healthy at just over €400,000 by the end of a dramatic day one of the Punchestown Festival.
Willie Mullins dominated the early exchanges, with Draconien causing an upset to land the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. Getabird was sent off a short-priced favourite but as at Cheltenham the Mullins-trained six-year-old disappointed. Elliott had hoped for a huge run from Mengli Khan, however, a scrappy jumping display put paid to his chances as he came home third. It was left to the unconsidered Clossuton contender, Draconien, to make a late and successful challenge, guided to victory by the classy Noel Fehily. The winner had previously been beaten out of sight by the talented yet unpredictable Getabird at Fairyhouse.
Momentum was with Mullins, and continued as he took first and second in the Champion Chase. The race had been billed as a three-way tussle between Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min. At the drop of the flag, the former was a shade of odds-on. But Douvan isn’t quite the force of old and several jumping errors meant that he was unable to keep tabs on a forcefully ridden Un De Sceaux. The winner jumped beautifully throughout and had almost four-lengths to spare at the line. A Toi Phil grabbed some much-needed prize money for Elliott in third, with Min coming home fourth.
With €162,250 awarded to the winner and €52,250 to the runner-up, this result did much to reduce the gap between Mullins and Elliott. And at this stage of day one, Elliott must have been fearing the worst.
The County Meath handler began the fightback in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, with his trio of runners filling the first three places. Commander Of Fleet proved an impressive winner and looks a tasty prospect.
Next came a truly incredible Growise Champion Novice Chase. Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee was installed as favourite, following his runner-up finish in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. He travelled well throughout, shadowing the Mullins-trained Invitation Only for much of the race. As the pair approached the second-last they were joined by another Mullions contender in Al Boum Photo. But that penultimate fence was where the drama began.
Monalee stepped at it, hit the deck, and in doing so brought down Invitation Only. The incident appeared to hand the race to Paul Townend aboard Al Boum Photo, though Finian’s Oscar was raising a late effort under a power-packed ride from Robbie Power. As the pair approached the last, Townend glanced behind him and suddenly veered to his right, seemingly attempting to swerve around the final fence. In doing so he carried out a bewildered Robbie Power and his mount.
That late drama left a Gordon Elliott trio to pick up the pieces, headed by the grateful Davy Russell aboard The Storyteller. Having looked likely to come home last, Monbeg Notorious charged late to snatch second, with Jury Duty coming home third. Rarely have we witnessed a race with such changing fortunes from the second last fence. Any of four looked likely to win, yet a fifth was left to take the spoils.
Elliott could hardly believe his good fortune, saying: “We got a bit of luck on our side and we needed it with the way the day started off. I don’t know what happened to Paul Townend, it all happened that quick. I was standing at the last and when I saw Paul going I wasn’t sure if it had been bypassed. It worked out great for me, so I can’t complain.”
That unlikely result put almost €90,000 into the Elliott war chest, whilst Townend received a hefty ban from the Punchestown stewards. There’s sure to be more twists and turns as the week progresses, though we’re unlikely to witness a more dramatic finish to a race.