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Jeff Kidder upsets the odds once more at Punchestown

Jeff Kidder sprang a 22-1 surprise for trainer Noel Meade as he lifted the Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, the final Grade One of this year’s Punchestown Festival and the Irish jumps season.

Triumph Hurdle hero Quilixios was widely expected to supplement his Cheltenham Triumph Hurdle success and maintain his unbeaten record, but he was beaten a long way out under Rachael Blackmore.

His swift retreat appeared to have handed victory to Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham third Haut En Coleurs, but Jeff Kidder found plenty in the straight, collaring the Willie Mullins-trained runner before the last to go on to win by three-quarters of a length in the hands of Sean Flanagan.

Zanahiyr swooped late to grab second after getting a bit tight for room with the winner at one point, prompting a stewards’ inquiry that made no difference to the result.

Sean Flanagan celebrates on Jeff Kidder
Sean Flanagan celebrates on Jeff Kidder (Niall Carson/PA)

Jeff Kidder was claiming his fourth hurdles victory, having won the juvenile handicap hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival at 80-1 before graduating to Grade Two company at Fairyhouse last month.

“I said in Fairyhouse, if he ever jumps them all he’ll be a really good horse and he did jump today,” said Meade.

“He jumped brilliant and he’s just never stopped improving. Since he came back from Cheltenham, he’s like a film star in the yard. The girls take him off to the beach for a dip and he’s become a star in the yard. I think he’s liking every minute of it.

“A real fast gallop really suits him, like they went in the Fred Winter and as they did there. They were coming back to him and his jumping was fantastic.”

Meade will now look to return to the Flat with Jeff Kidder, adding: “He’s going to have a little break, although I suppose he’s so well you’d think to yourself you should keep going.

“He’ll certainly have a run on the Flat, he’s never going to be a chaser.

“Now that he’s won that, he’s going to have to stay with the big fellas now, that’s his last chance to run in a four-year-old race, so he’ll have to wait until the back end to have a go again.

“It’s been a lonely old week up until now. I said Willie has been the easiest man to find in Punchestown as he’s been in the winner’s enclosure all week.

“To be fair he was the first one to congratulate me. I’m delighted, absolutely thrilled.”

Stormy Ireland (7-2) galloped her rivals into submission in the Grade One Coolmore Kew Gardens Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle – chalking up Mullins’ 17th winner of the week.

Danny Mullins was eager to seize the initiative on the seven-year-old, who was one of four contenders for Willie Mullins.

Stormy Ireland bowled along in front and was still full of running with two to jump as 8-11 favourite and stablemate Concertista tried to reel in her handy advantage along with Minella Melody.

However, Mullins had plenty up his sleeve and the mare, who only recently return to Mullins’ care following an unsuccessful spell with Paul Nicholls, cruised home by to take a first top-level victory.

Stormy Ireland impressed Willie Mullins with her win
Stormy Ireland impressed Willie Mullins with her win (Niall Carson/PA)

The Closutton handler admitted his surprise at Stormy Ireland’s progress following a victory at Fairyhouse last month and could now look at Flat targets with his charge.

He said: “She appears to have improved from Fairyhouse. It’s a great day for Danny, a nice double for him.

“That mare surprised me, how much she has come on from that.

“We’ll keep her in training, I don’t think she’s going to go to the breeding shed this year as she looks to have plenty left in the tank.

“I’m having second thoughts now about going chasing with her and maybe we could go back to the Flat with her.

“She’s by Motivator and it might be a safer career option than going chasing. I don’t think she’s going to improver her pedigree by getting black type over fences, she has enough over hurdles.

“If she could do something on the Flat, that would be better for her.”

Mullins made it 18 when the Brian Hayes-ridden Brahma Bull lifted the Palmerstown House Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase, before Koshari grabbed another for the trainer in the Baroneracing.com Handicap Hurdle under Ricky Doyle.

Call It Magic (left) made amends for Thursday's mishap
Call It Magic (left) made amends for Thursday’s mishap (Niall Carson/PA)

Keith Donoghue made amends for an unfortunate incident on Thursday as he teamed up with Call It Magic (22-1) to win the opening Dooley Insurance Group Cross Country Chase.

The duo came unstuck in the La Touche Cup when Donoghue took the wrong course, but trainer Ross O’Sullivan thrilled to see the pair right the wrong with a half-length verdict over Ballyboker Bridge.

“I got an unbelievable kick out of that. I can’t believe it, he hasn’t won a race for four years,” said O’Sullivan.

“All the drama the other day and all the effing and blinding that went with it. I’m in shock. He battled and jumped brilliant.

“Racing is so funny with the twists and turns. Myself and Keith were at loggerheads with each other on Thursday, but we’re back today and he gave the horse an absolute genius of a ride.”

Gaillard Du Mesnil digs deep to secure Punchestown prize

Gaillard Du Mesnil landed a second Grade One of the season with victory in the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.

The five-year-old took advantage of the late withdrawal of Bob Olinger, who had beaten him in the Ballymore at Cheltenham, to add this to his top-level success at Leopardstown in February.

It was not entirely straight forward however, as he had to dig deep to see off Ashdale Bob by two and a quarter lengths.

Paul Townend celebrates winning the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle with Gaillard Du Mesnil,
Paul Townend celebrates winning the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle with Gaillard Du Mesnil (Brian Lawless/PA)

Jockey Paul Townend was winning his 100th race of the season and said: “This lad was keen enough throughout the race, with just the four runners it was messy enough. Thankfully he’s won and it’s brilliant for Mr and Mrs Donnelly (owners) as well.

“He was sloppy at the last down the back. For a four runner race there was a lot going on. All’s well that ends well.”

Mullins added: “That was a very good performance and I think he’s going to be a nice horse next year.

“There is a good possibility that he’ll jump fences next season and that might help him to settle as well. He’s too busy during a race, but once he learns to relax, he’ll give a lot more.”

Asterion Forlonge was also on the mark for Mullins
Asterion Forlonge was also on the mark for Mullins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mullins was taking his tally at the meeting to 15 as top-weight Asterion Forlonge had earlier totally outclassed the opposition in the EMS Copiers Novice Handicap Chase.

Giving between 10lb and 21lb to his rivals was no problem for the Grade One regular. Things had not gone right for Asterion Forlonge (11-4 favourite) after he made a winning debut over fences on this course in November, but he has been taking on the best novice company.

However, the seven-year-old grey got back to winning ways in some style with a 14-length demolition of the opposition under Bryan Cooper. Walk Away was second with Port Stanley third, four and three-quarter lengths further adrift.

Mullins said: “The drop in class makes a big difference to the pace of a race and he was able to get it all together. Even with top-weight in a handicap, it’s a different pace than you would have in Graded races.

“Nicer ground helped as well. I think he can improve a lot next year and be able to tackle top graded racing.

“Any of our top-weights that have won that race have turned out to be very good horses (Kemboy won in 2018 and Real Steel in 2019) and I think this fella has the potential to be that as well.

“Bryan said he was travelling at all stages of the race.”

El Barra (12-1) made it 16 for Mullins in the SalesSense International Novice Hurdle and also completed a double for jockey Sean O’Keeffe after Rapid Response had earlier got up in the dying strides to mug Scarlet And Dove in the Hanlon Concrete Irish EBF Glencarraig Lady Francis Flood Mares Handicap Chase.

The Jessica Harrington-trained seven-year-old managed to collar Scarlet And Dove, who had looked the likely winner when going on after jumping the third-last fence.

However, a mistake at the penultimate obstacle did not help her cause and she could not put the race to bed with Rapid Response (9-1) capitalising late on to score by a neck.

Rapid Response was the first leg of a double for Sean O'Keeffe
Rapid Response was the first leg of a double for Sean O’Keeffe (Brian Lawless/PA)

Kate Harrington, assistant to her mother, said: “We always thought there was a big one in her and it’s lovely to see her go and do that.

“It’s quite fitting for the week that the Potts (owners) have a winner with them donating a statue of Sizing John.

“It was a race meeting that Alan and Ann always loved to come to each year. Magic Of Light won it off a mark of 128 back in 2018, and I think Rapid is going to be an exciting staying filly going forward.

“It was the plan all year to aim her at this and it was very exciting just getting up on the line. As a young horse, Ann had a very fond connection with her before she passed away.”

Rewritetherules clears an obstacle at Puchestown
Rewritetherules clears an obstacle at Puchestown (Brian Lawless/PA)

John Hanlon was delighted a plan came to fruition when Rewritetherules (evens favourite) took the Paddy Power Hunters Chase for the Bishopscourt Cup in the hands of amateur Tom Hamilton.

“The plan when they bought him was to win this Cup. The O’Rourke’s (Dermot and Diane) wanted to win this cup for years and they are only four minutes from the course. I’m delighted to get the job done for them,” he said.

“He’ll probably go on hurdling and chasing now and could come back for this race next year.”

Bob And Co (right) edged out Billaway
Bob And Co (right) edged out Billaway (Brian Lawless/PA)

Bob And Co and David Maxwell edged out Billaway and Patrick Mullins in a thrilling finish to the Irish Daily Star Champion Hunters Chase.

Billaway made a brave attempt to made all the running but was just denied as Bob And Co (3-1) ran on determinedly from the last to snatch the spoils by a nose. The pair pulled eight lengths clear of Staker Wallace in third.

It was a second victory at the meeting this week for UK’s champion jumps trainer Paul Nicholls following Clan Des Obeaux in the Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday.

Maxwell said: “It’s amazing, absolutely unbelievable. The horse just wanted it badly, he was never going to lie down and was just always pulling out a bit more and a bit more. He deserved to get it.

“This is the heart of racing – here and Cheltenham. It’s an unbelievable sport that a 43-year-old businessman can come here and do that.”

Honeysuckle extends unbeaten run with dominant Punchestown display

Honeysuckle capped an amazing campaign when taking her unbeaten record to 12 in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Henry de Bromhead’s remarkable mare followed up her victory at Cheltenham with another convincing display in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.

Asked to go and win the race after jumping the second-last flight, Honeysuckle soon put daylight between herself and her rivals.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle (Brian Lawless/PA)

Her supporters had a slight scare coming to the last when the 4-7 favourite steadied going into it, giving Sharjah a chance to catch her.

However, she pulled away again on the run-in to score by two and a quarter lengths. Epatante was 10 lengths away in third in a repeat of the positions in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Honeysuckle was cut to 2-1 favourite from 11-4 to defend her Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham next spring with Paddy Power.

“It’s 100 per cent relief – I nearly threw it away at the last,” said Blackmore.

“She was feeling the season a little bit I think, but she’s just phenomenal.

“I wasn’t as comfortable throughout the race on her today, but still she just delivers.

“Real stars get jockeys out of trouble. I did sleep last night – sleeping is never a bother.”

Rachael Blackmore with her Punchestown trophy
Rachael Blackmore with her Punchestown trophy

Blackmore and De Bromhead have endured a disappointing week by their own high standards, with Honeysuckle a first success at this year’s Festival.

Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo had to miss his intended run on Wednesday due to a minor issue while star novice hurdler Bob Olinger was ruled out of his Punchestown engagement at a late stage due to coughing.

De Bromhead said: “We weren’t having an amazing week, but she always gets us out of trouble. She’s amazing. I’m just delighted for Kenny (Alexander, owner), Peter (Molony) and everyone involved.

“She was brilliant and Rachael was brilliant on her.

“She’s like a lot of those really good horses, she has such a will to win and Rachael is so good on her.

“She’s done that before at the last, but thankfully Rachael had it all under control. It’s been an amazing season and that’s a great way to finish it off.”

Honeysuckle jumps the last at Punchestown
Honeysuckle jumps the last at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA)

Molony, who is Alexander’s racing manager, admitted there is a “temptation” to switch to chasing with Honeysuckle, who was a point to point winner before embarking on her career under rules.

He said: “We have to sit down and have a chat about it (plans for next season).

“The safe option would be to go back over hurdles and it’d be wonderful if we could win another Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham and another Irish Champion Hurdle – that would be wonderful.

“There is a temptation there (to go over fences). She’s a wonderful jumper – she looks like a chasing mare. The temptation is there – how exciting would it be, but we’ll have a chat.

“I know she does (jump fences), I’ve seen her do it (schooling on Sunday mornings). We’ll see.”

Quilixios seeks to extend unbeaten record

Triumph Hurdle hero Quilixios puts his unbeaten record on the line on the final afternoon of the Punchestown Festival.

Making his first start for Henry de Bromhead after being moved from Gordon Elliott’s stable, the Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding ran out an authoritative winner of the juvenile championship in the Cotswolds.

The four-year-old renews rivalry on Saturday with the third and fourth from Cheltenham, in the Willie Mullins-trained Haut En Couleurs and Denise Foster’s Zanahiyr.

De Bromhead has high hopes his charge can come out on top once more in the Grade One Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle.

“He’s been really good and looks amazing. Obviously he only came to us just prior to Cheltenham, but he seems in really good form,” said the Waterford-based trainer.

“He seems to have a very high cruising speed – he jumps well and he’s a very exciting horse.

“You’d hope he’d jump a fence, looking at his technique and everything. He’s a lovely, big, scopey horse – he’s a big fella and is exciting for the future.”

The first two from the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham are also in contention.

Jeff Kidder on his way to victory at Fairyhouse
Jeff Kidder on his way to victory at Fairyhouse (Niall Carson/PA)

Noel Meade’s Jeff Kidder, who has since won a Grade Two at Fairyhouse, led Mullins’ Saint Sam home at Prestbury Park – but both need to progress further to match the form of Quilixios.

French raider Mica Malpic (David Cottin), Druid’s Altar (Joseph O’Brien), Palace Rock (Francis Casey) and Zoffanien (Denis Hogan) complete the line-up.

Willie Mullins is responsible for four of the nine runners declared for the Coolmore Kew Gardens Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle – a Grade One contest he has won seven times in the last 10 runnings.

This year’s quartet is headed by Concertista, who is bidding to bounce back from a narrow defeat to Black Tears when odds-on for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Skyace has enjoyed a fantastic season
Skyace has enjoyed a fantastic season (Niall Carson/PA)

The Closutton handler also saddles Burning Victory – not seen since winning last year’s Triumph Hurdle – as well as My Sister Sarah and Stormy Ireland.

There would be no more popular winner than former Mullins inmate Skyace, for trainer Shark Hanlon.

The £600 purchase has won five times this season – most recently claiming Grade One honours in novice company at Fairyhouse.

Hanlon acknowledges the fact his stable star faces a much tougher assignment this weekend, but he is relishing the challenge.

He said: “It’s a step up in class for her, and we’re taking her out of novice company, but this is probably going to be her last run for a while – and she’s entitled to be there.

“She’s in great order and good form. The prize-money is so big as far down as fourth place, so we’ll give it our best shot.

“She’s entitled to take them on.”

Another ex-Mullins runner Laurina makes her first start for new connections, with Global Equity (Joseph O’Brien), Minella Melody (De Bromhead) and Politesse (Lorna Fowler) the other hopefuls.

Paul Townend extends title lead over Rachael Blackmore

Paul Townend is now eight winners clear of Rachael Blackmore in the race to be crowned Ireland’s champion National Hunt jockey.

Townend had just two rides on day three of the Punchestown Festival, but both Energumene and Gauloise came good for the defending champion.

Energumene (2-5 favourite) made short work of his three rivals in the Ryanair Novice Chase, while Gauloise (7-4 favourite) had to battle a bit harder but eventually prevailed by 10 lengths in the Close Brothers Mares Novice Hurdle.

Blackmore had six rides but second place aboard Raya Time in the Pigsback.com Handicap Chase was her best effort of the day.

Townend only returned to action at Punchestown on Tuesday following a foot injury, but he rode a winner on each of the first two days.

Blackmore started the week just four winners behind but has drawn a blank so far. She has Champion Hurdle heroine Honeysuckle and exciting novice Bob Olinger to look forward to among her mounts on Friday.

Energumene impresses with easy Ryanair triumph

Energumene provided Willie Mullins with yet another Grade One winner at the Punchestown Festival when making all the running in the Ryanair Novice Chase.

Having added to his tally in the top-level events when Klassical Dream defied a lengthy absence in the Stayers Hurdle, this success looked likely a long way from home.

Energumene was denied a clash with Shishkin in the Arkle at Cheltenham due to a small setback, but he made a swift recovery and he was sent off the 2-5 favourite to beat a field of just three rivals.

Paul Townend and Energumene after their cosy victory
Paul Townend and Energumene after their cosy victory (Brian Lawless/PA)

One of those was his stablemate, Janadil, a Grade One winner last time out, while Captain Guinness this time took a lead having tried to set the pace at Cheltenham.

He possibly had no say in that matter though, as Energumene set off at a rare lick under Paul Townend and jumping well, just eased further clear.

By the home straight Captain Guinness was running on empty and eventually unseated Rachael Blackmore, but Janadil had already claimed second by then.

Energumene came home 16 lengths clear and Paddy Power immediately cut him to 6-1 from 12s for next year’s Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

Willie Mullins after Energumene's success
Willie Mullins after Energumene’s success (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mullins said: “He seems to be back to himself. He was very slick early on, met a few wrong down the back, but once he got his eye in again over the last four, he was brilliant.

“It was a great performance to finish up the season.

“It was a nice surprise to get him back because I thought when we had to scratch him from Cheltenham, we’d miss Punchestown.

“He just made a very quick recovery. We were hoping to get him to Fairyhouse but that didn’t work, so I said we’d be better off taking our time and coming here and that paid off.”

When asked if he would get further, Mullins added: “He’s won over two and a half miles and has won a point-to-point, the only reason I came back was because he was so slick jumping.

“I thought he’d be a two-and-a-half-mile horse, more like Janidil, but when he gets his jumping right, he’s more like a hurdler over fences.

“I’d imagine we’ll go the Champion Chase route first and we’ll see how that goes.

“He’s a nice one for (owner) Tony Bloom to have.”

Dream return for Klassical with Stayers success

Klassical Dream made light of a long absence as he ran out a hugely impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown.

A ready winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2019, when he also followed up at this meeting, his career hit the buffers last season.

Sent off an odds-on favourite in two Grade One outings, he was beaten in both, most recently in the Matheson Hurdle in December 2019 when last of five.

However, having his first outing for nearly 500 days, there was plenty of market confidence behind Patrick Mullins’ mount which saw him sent off at 5-1 in a strong field.

Patrick Mullins (left) and Klassical Dream celebrate
Patrick Mullins (left) and Klassical Dream celebrate (Brian Lawless/PA)

The favourite was Cheltenham winner Flooring Porter but he got very worked up down at the start, missed the break, raced keenly throughout and by the second last he was beating a retreat.

French Dynamite was left in front, but all the while Mullins crept closer on Klassical Dream, who cruised to the front on the bridle.

Stablemate James Du Berlais came out of the pack to chase him home, but was beaten nine lengths. Ronald Pump was third.

Willie Mullins with his Stayers Hurdle trophy
Willie Mullins with his Stayers Hurdle trophy (Brian Lawless/PA)

Patrick Mullins said: “I can’t say I’m surprised. He’s a very high-class horse, it just went wrong for him over two miles.

“I know he hadn’t run for a long time, but he was ready to run at Christmas and he got a small setback and then it was too late to go chasing.

“Eilish Byrne deserves great credit as she rides him out all the time and he’s not easy.

“I wasn’t surprised how well he settled, he had a hood on and we went a good gallop. The false start wasn’t ideal, but he handled it all right.”

Mullins, who moved three clear of Jamie Codd in the race to be champion amateur, added: “I’m getting to pick up rides in Grade Ones, I’m in a very lucky position and Jamie doesn’t have that kind of ammunition and firepower.

“When you are riding for Willie Mullins at Punchestown, it makes the job a lot easier.

“I’ve been lucky enough to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and now the Stayers here. I was second in the Gold Cup on Djakadam one year, so hopefully I might get the full set at some stage.”

Mullins mentioned the French Champion Hurdle as a possible option for the winner.

Al Boum Photo goes for Gold at Punchestown

Al Boum Photo has an enhanced opportunity to add the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup to his two famous Cheltenham titles.

Willie Mullins’ dual Cheltenham Gold Cup hero had to settle for third behind Minella Indo last month in his quest to join the most select group of racing greats as a three-time winner.

There will be no Minella Indo in his way on Wednesday, though, after trainer Henry de Bromhead ruled the eight-year-old out of his scheduled final run of the season because of a bruised foot.

Kemboy beat Al Boum Photo in the race two years ago - after which Ruby Walsh promptly retired
Kemboy beat Al Boum Photo in the Punchestown Gold Cup two years ago – after which winning jockey Ruby Walsh promptly retired (Brian Lawless/PA)

While Minella Indo is fully expected to be back to defend his Cheltenham crown next year, his Punchestown absence leaves a field of just six.

Al Boum Photo will be ridden by Paul Townend following his Gold Cup-winning jockey’s return to fitness from a foot injury.

They are the new favourites to gain revenge on stablemate Kemboy, who beat them in this race in 2019 and is therefore the most recent winner.

Paul Nicholls’ dual King George VI hero Clan Des Obeaux is a major contender too, travelling over to uphold British honour after the home team’s eclipse in so many races at Cheltenham.

Mullins senses Al Boum Photo was possibly not quite firing on all cylinders in his Cheltenham hat-trick bid.

“People could say that Al Boum Photo’s run might have been good enough to win the last two Gold Cups, and he just met two good horses on the day,” he said.

“I’m not saying he’d have won the Gold Cup, but I thought he could have run better – maybe he didn’t fire as well as he has (in the past).

“Certainly the last five jumps weren’t as strong as they were last year. He has worked well in the meantime, and I’m happy with him where he is at the moment.”

Kemboy’s two-length victory from Al Boum Photo two years ago was a result which sparked pandemonium as the winner’s jockey Ruby Walsh announced his immediate retirement after the race.

Mullins – who also runs Melon, in the Al Boum Photo colours, and Easy Game – added: “Kemboy worked very well the other morning; I was very pleased with him.”

Clan Des Obeaux, the sole British challenger, certainly has the right credentials to mix it with the best of the Irish – and was right back to his very best when winning by 26 lengths at Aintree this month.

However, he will face a completely different test to the one he passed that day.

“He won well at Aintree the other day, but he has obviously won the King George twice – and going right-handed seems to suit him better,” said Nicholls.

“He’s a much more mature horse now. Cheltenham doesn’t suit him at all – that race and the ground at the time. This is much better for him.

“He does seem to like this time of year when the sun is shining and looks great.

“If he performs like he did at Aintree the other day, he’s going to be right in the mix.”

Clan Des Obeaux and Sam Twiston-Davies after winning the King George
Clan Des Obeaux and Sam Twiston-Davies after winning the King George (Steven Paston/PA)

Sam Twiston-Davies, on board for the second of Clan Des Obeaux’s King George victories in 2019, is reunited with the nine-year-old – in place of Harry Cobden, who suffered a season-ending injury shortly after their victory together at Aintree.

Twiston-Davies said in his William Hill blog: “I’m very pleased to be asked to step in and ride Clan Des Obeaux while Harry is out on the sidelines.

“He felt brilliant in the early part of the season when I rode him at Haydock, finishing second on heavy ground, but then things didn’t quite work out for us in the King George at Kempton.

“It was a funny race – we didn’t get a very smooth run around, and he made a couple of mistakes down the back, but there’s no hiding what he did at Aintree last time out – he was very impressive.”

After Clan Des Obeaux’s three placed runs at Haydock, Kempton and then Newbury in February, Nicholls took Cobden’s advice to fit him with cheekpieces for the first time at Aintree – and the result was an emphatic win in the Grade One Betway Bowl.

Twiston-Davies added: “He jumped nicely, got himself into a good rhythm – and if he’s able to do that on Wednesday, then we should be in for a massive run.

“He’s at a nice age as a nine-year-old. Physically and mentally he looks the complete package, and he should be right near his peak now.

“Punchestown is a beautiful, right-handed track that should suit him well – although he’s just as good going the other way round.

“I’ve only ridden the track a handful of times and will always remember winning the Champion Hunters Chase there back in 2009 on Baby Run.

“This is obviously a bit of a different task to that, but I’ll have a good walk of the track, get all the information I can and make sure we’re fully prepared for whatever it throws at us.

“He’s a very classy horse that still manages to get through the heavy ground, but it doesn’t see him at his best, so the expected good, good to soft ground will be ideal for him.”

The field is completed by Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudairies, another winner from Aintree who steps up to three miles for just the second time in his career.

Davy Russell rules out Punchestown return

Davy Russell will wait for a less high-profile meeting to make his comeback after ruling himself out of the Punchestown Festival.

Russell has been on the sidelines since dislocating and fracturing vertebrae in a first-fence fall in the Munster National at Limerick in October.

While he has been riding out for a number of weeks, the Gold Cup and Grand National-winning rider does not yet feel completely ready to return.

Writing in his Star Sports blog, Russell said: “I have run out of time to make my return to the saddle in Punchestown next week.

“My recovery continues to go really well and to be honest I feel great. I’ve been riding out and schooling regularly and could have given next week a shot. However, I’m not quite 100% ready and I always vowed I’d only return at that point.

“I’ve still got a tiny bit of discomfort that restricts full flexibility and I’m just not where I want to be to return on the biggest of stages.

“I mentioned when ruling myself out of the Cheltenham Festival that you have to be 100% fit to ride the likes of Envoi Allen and I stand by that. I’ll continue to work hard on my recovery and will target a less high-profile meeting for that return.”

Nube Negra handed Punchestown assignment

Dan Skelton expects to field a smaller team than expected on the final day of the season at Sandown – with Nube Negra heading to Punchestown instead.

Skelton had made plenty of entries at the Esher track, but with the ground currently described as good, the Alcester handler is set to swerve the meeting with a few of his potential runners.

Champion Chase runner-up Nube Negra was due to be Skelton’s headline act in a rematch with his Cheltenham conqueror Put The Kettle On in the bet365 Celebration Chase, but the seven-year-old will now line up in Ireland next week instead.

“With the weather as dry as it is, we will adopt a cautious approach at Sandown,” said Skelton.

“Not That Fuisse (Josh Gifford Novices’ Handicap Chase) will be our main one and I do think he has unfinished business to attend to.

“Nube Negra will go to Punchestown and I feel he’s exceptionally good.”

Allaho and Chacun facing Champion Chase clash at Punchestown

Willie Mullins is preparing to let stablemates Allaho and Chacun Pour Soi do battle for the William Hill Champion Chase at Punchestown.

Allaho came of age with a brilliant front-running display in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham last month, while Chacun Pour Soi could finish only third when bidding to provide his trainer with an elusive first victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase the previous afternoon.

Mullins is keen to test Allaho’s powers over two miles in the feature event on the opening day of the Festival next Tuesday to try to find out whether he could be a legitimate contender for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham next season.

“The William Hill Champion Chase could be a good race,” said the champion trainer.

“At the moment I’m looking at the race for Allaho. I’d just like to see what he can do over two miles – he jumps so efficiently and so well, that is where my head is at at the moment.

“I think this is the natural race for Chacun Pour Soi. There will be plenty of pace on and Cilaos Emery will probably go there as well, so we will be well represented in the race.”

Mullins is preparing another formidable team for the end-of-season showpiece meeting in County Kildare.

Also running on day one is Appreciate It, who will bid to follow up his brilliant win in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham with victory in the eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Novice Hurdle.

Appreciate It on his way to winning at Cheltenham
Appreciate It on his way to winning at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

On plans for that race, Mullins said: “Appreciate It will definitely go, Blue Lord is in there as well and Echoes In Rain is interesting.

“She will probably go for the mares’ race, but her performance in Fairyhouse was very good and she is in the Champion Novice Hurdle on Tuesday getting a nice fillies allowance, so we’ll see.”

Tuesday’s Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase could stage one of the clashes of the season, with the Mullins-trained Monkfish set to lock horns with Henry de Bromhead’s Envoi Allen.

Monkfish was made to work a little harder than many expected when stretching his unbeaten record over fences to four in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, but ultimately got the job done.

Monkfish is set to take on Envoi Allen next week
Monkfish is set to take on Envoi Allen next week (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“Monkfish didn’t jump with the same flair that he jumped (with previously) and he didn’t gallop with the same flair (at Cheltenham), but he’ll go for the three-mile race on Tuesday,” Mullins confirmed.

The Closutton handler expects Monkfish to be joined by at least a couple of stable companions, adding: “Colreevy has been covered by Walk In The Park and she will go. That will probably be her last run.

“The Flynns (owners) are out-and-out breeders and she is a fantastic looking mare and hopefully she’ll be lucky.

“From winning at Christmas over two miles, I think I’m going to put Franco De Port in over three miles and that will tell us where we are going next year.

“We’ll have a good hand in that race.”

Looking ahead to the rest of the Punchestown Festival, Mullins is looking forward to seeing Al Boum Photo and Kemboy renew rivalry in Wednesday’s Ladbrokes Gold Cup.

Ruby Walsh famously retired on Kemboy when getting the better of his dual Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning stablemate Al Boum Photo in the last running of the day two feature in 2019.

Cheltenham one-two Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit will lead the Mullins team in Wednesday’s ITM – Supporting Irish Store Sales Champion Bumper, while Sharjah, James Du Berlais, Klassical Dream and Saldier are potential runners in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle on Friday.

Mullins also confirmed Energumene, who missed the Arkle at Cheltenham due to a late setback, is on course to return in the Ryanair Novice Chase on Thursday.

“Punchestown is what we always look forward to. There is huge prize money, fantastic racing, they always produce great ground and just the amphitheatre of Punchestown itself,” Mullins added.

“I often think there is no racetrack like it in the world when you see it laid out for five days racing. It’s just amazing and the whole concept of the Punchestown Festival is huge when you see the work and preparation that goes into it.

“There is fantastic prize money so we are not putting them out to grass just yet – they’ll get plenty of grass in the summer!”

De Bromhead looking forward to latest round of superstar action

Henry de Bromhead is not allowing himself to get carried away as he prepares an array of stars for the Punchestown Festival.

De Bromhead won the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and saddled the first two in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham – the first time all three championship races had been won by the same trainer at the Festival – and then topped that by sending out the first and second in the Randox Grand National.

While he is quite happy for his jockey Rachael Blackmore to take most of the plaudits, the quietly-spoken Waterford trainer is finding it hard to keep in the background with the sheer number of brilliant horses he has assembled.

“The whole thing feels surreal,” said De Bromhead.

Henry de Bromhead with Gold Cup hero Minella Indo
Henry de Bromhead with Gold Cup hero Minella Indo (Morgan Treacy/Handout)

“I was just getting my head around Cheltenham and then we went and won the National. They are the races you grow up watching and dream of having runners in.

“Everyone is sick of my superlatives and I’ve run out of things to say, it’s just brilliant.

“We’ve all watched the National again, but it’s just a busy time of year – we’re flat out.

“Hopefully when things calm down after Punchestown we’ll be able to savour it even more, but the times we are in we’re not able to celebrate much – but that is better for my liver anyhow. If it was a normal Cheltenham, I’m not sure if I’d have even seen Cheltenham!

“Everyone gets on a run, but it is incredible ours has happened now. We’ve got years of experience in the teams at home, we’re always developing, it’s a great team, owners have confidence and faith in us and we’ve brilliant jockeys.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things, but no one is more surprised than I am.”

Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line at Punchestown
Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line at Punchestown (Michael Steele/PA)

De Bromhead will run most of his Cheltenham winners at Punchestown, including Gold Cup hero Minella Indo and the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle.

Minella Indo is set for the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup on the second day, Wednesday, with Jack Kennedy keeping the ride.

“He’s really good, he’s so laid back. We backed off for a few days afterwards and he started getting chubby, but we started back with him again and he seems in great form and we’re happy with him,” said De Bromhead.

Honeysuckle has the prospect of going chasing still in the background, but for now her sights are fixed on the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle on Friday week.

Envoi Allen is poised for action at Punchestown
Envoi Allen is poised for action at Punchestown (PA)

“She seems really good, came out of Cheltenham really well and we’re really excited about it and looking forward to the race,” said De Bromhead.

One rare blip in recent weeks for the stable was when new recruit Envoi Allen fell at Cheltenham, but he is on target for a mouthwatering clash with Monkfish in the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase on the opening day.

De Bromhead said: “He’s on course, he’s in great form and worked really well at the Curragh last week.

“Obviously Cheltenham was unfortunate, it was a novicey mistake but he seems in great form and we’re good to go.”

It has been a momentous year for Rachael Blackmore
It has been a momentous year for Rachael Blackmore (Tim Goode/PA)

Bob Olinger and Quilixios are others due to run at a meeting which will also decide who is champion jockey, with Blackmore chasing down Paul Townend.

The gap is currently eight, with Townend still sidelined with a foot injury.

“I’m not sure what Paul’s situation is, I don’t know if he’ll be back. It’s going to be tough even if he’s not back, but we’ll be trying to do our best and support her the best we can,” said De Bromhead, who expects to be represented by Plan Of Attack in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday, with Blackmore aboard.

“You can all see for yourself (what her strengths are), in the National it was like she could see around corners, she saw dangers before they happened.

“She’s brilliant to work with and knows how hard you have to work to succeed. She gets on with everyone and knows how to ride winners.

“I’ve said it all before, but I think she’s just brilliant – we’re very lucky to have her.”

Minella Indo could bid for Gold Cup double at Punchestown

Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Minella Indo remains on course for the newly-sponsored Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup on April 28.

The eight-year-old led home stablemate A Plus Tard to provide trainer Henry de Bromhead with a one-two in last month’s blue riband.

With A Plus Tard a possible runner at Aintree next week, Minella Indo will be a hot favourite to claim another big-race success in the 250,000 euro feature on day two of Ireland’s end-of-season meeting.

De Bromhead said: “It (Gold Cup) was a hard race, as you would expect, and A Plus Tard pushed him all the way, but he seems to be good since.

“Like all the horses that ran in Cheltenham, we will give him as much time as he needs and just see how he is before getting going again, but we would hopefully be returning to Punchestown with him.

“He won the Grade One three-mile novice hurdle at the Festival two years ago, following up from the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, so he does like it around Punchestown.

“We will see how he is and discuss it with the Maloneys (owners), but there is a good chance (he’ll run) at this stage.”

Minella Indo’s potential rivals include dual Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, who was third when bidding for the hat-trick, and his stablemate Kemboy, who got the better of Al Boum Photo in the most recent Punchestown Gold Cup in 2019 under the retiring Ruby Walsh.

As well as taking over sponsorship of the Punchestown Gold Cup, Ladbrokes will continue its sponsorship of the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle the following afternoon.

Flooring Porter is bound for Punchestown
Flooring Porter is bound for Punchestown (Michael Steele/PA)

The likely star attraction in that Grade One contest is Gavin Cromwell’s Flooring Porter, who made all the running in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

“Punchestown is definitely the aim for Flooring Porter. He’s good. He came out of Cheltenham fine and is back in full work. We’re happy with him so all roads lead to Punchestown,” said Cromwell.

“It is really just about getting him back in the routine. He’s obviously very fit so it’s only a matter of ticking him over, but it doesn’t take very much to get ready.”

Flooring Porter was ridden by Danny Mullins at Cheltenham after Cromwell’s stable jockey Jonathan Moore stood himself down on the morning of the race due to injury.

Cromwell added: “It was a huge shame for Jonathan, but he is a big part of the team.

“We’re optimistic Jonathan will be back from injury to renew his partnership after Danny Mullins filled in so well at Cheltenham. He’s still quite sore at the moment, but will hopefully be fine by the time Punchestown comes around.”

Punchestown plan for Mrs Milner

Paul Nolan plans to head to Punchestown next with his Cheltenham Festival heroine Mrs Milner.

Nolan’s Pertemps Final winner has recovered well from last week’s trip to Britain, and Nolan has already pencilled in a potential target at the six-day Punchestown Festival – which begins at the end of April.

“We were delighted with her,” said the County Wexford trainer.

“She’s very well – she came out of the race great.

“We’ll make some decisions shortly – she’ll probably aim for something at Punchestown.”

Having won a hugely competitive race by five lengths off a mark of 134, Mrs Milner may be heading out of handicaps.

“There’s not much for her – she’s probably at the stage now where she’s coming out of handicap company, up near the 140s,” added Nolan.

“In Ireland it’s very, very difficult to win off top-weight in a handicap – so she’ll probably have to take on horses at graded level now, which is not simple.

“At least if she moves out of the fillies’ races she has a 7lb allowance – and as we’ve seen from Cheltenham, it’s been a year for the fillies.

Mrs Milner clears the last to win the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle during day three of the Cheltenham Festival
Mrs Milner clears the last to win the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“She’s only a young mare, and if she continues to improve, maybe she can throw a bit of a blow at the highest level.”

Nolan also reflected on the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase performance of Monkfish, who is the three-time nemesis to date of his own high-class novice Latest Exhibition.

The two rivals first crossed paths in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival, and have twice met in Grade One chases since graduating to fences.

On each occasion Monkfish has prevailed, leaving Nolan to sidestep the Festival in order to avoid another unfavourable encounter with the Willie Mullins-trained chestnut.

Latest Exhibition (left) taking on Monkfish in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase during the Leopardstown Christmas Festival
Latest Exhibition (left) taking on Monkfish in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase during the Leopardstown Christmas Festival (PA)

Monkfish was triumphant again at Cheltenham, but his somewhat sticky round of jumping produced a less emphatic win than expected and caused many to ponder how Latest Exhibition would have fared had he run.

“He still won,” Nolan said of Monkfish’s Cheltenham performance.

“People say to me ‘you should never be afraid of taking on one horse’, but I’d taken him on three times and been beaten three times, so there was a little bit of an inevitability about things as well.

“He still won the race – he did make mistakes, but he still picked up well and went to the line.

“We can all say ‘maybe this’ or ‘maybe that’, but the horse still won the race – and there’s no reason to think the tighter track on the inside would have suited my horse at Cheltenham either.

“We made a decision and we said that no matter what happens, we’re not going to be sorry.”

Latest Exhibition and Bryan Cooper celebrate winning the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors 50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff Novice Hurdle
Latest Exhibition and Bryan Cooper celebrate winning the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors 50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff Novice Hurdle (PA)

Latest Exhibition will head next to Fairyhouse, for the Underwriting Exchange Gold Cup Novice Chase. Envoi Allen holds an entry there, but appears more likely to wait for Punchestown.

“I hope to God we can come back, because I’d love to end up winning with him before the end of the season,” said Nolan.

“He’s only won once this season and if I was told that at the start of the campaign, I’d certainly be disappointed.

“So we’re trying to rectify that – and hopefully we’ll have made the right decision come Fairyhouse.”

Punchestown assignment on Honeysuckle radar

Henry de Bromhead is “leaning towards” giving Honeysuckle her final outing of the season in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

The mare maintained her unbeaten record in scintillating style at Cheltenham last week, with her rider Rachael Blackmore becoming the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle.

Paddy Power are the new sponsors of the Punchestown race, backing it for the next three years.

“Honeysuckle certainly appears to be going from strength to strength and was brilliant in Cheltenham, so it would be great to be able to go to Punchestown for the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle, all being well,” said De Brohmead.

Rachael Blackmore all smiles with Honeysuckle
Rachael Blackmore all smiles with Honeysuckle (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“I spoke to Peter Molony (owner Kenny Alexander’s racing manager) over the weekend and without saying for sure, we’d certainly be leaning towards Punchestown if we get the right signals between now and then.

“She seems good, really well and we’re delighted with her. We’ll just let her settle back in and just start tipping away with her again. We’ll just have to see and get a feel for her over the coming weeks and she’ll tell us how she is.

“Each horse is different and there’s no set routine after a race, we’ll let her tell us. She is having a well-earned rest and we’ll pick things up again when she is ready.

“We also have Aspire Tower who will be aimed at the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle. He ran a blinder at Cheltenham to be fourth. We were delighted with him. He is only five, but has made the transition from juvenile to open company very well and he will be aimed at Punchestown as well.”