At Punchestown on Sunday, weather permitting, a number of high profile staying chasers will clash in the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase.
Established in 1968, it has a relatively short yet rich history, having gone to many a classy chaser, including Captain Christy in 1975, Dawn Run in 1985, Imperial Call in 1998 and Kicking King in 2004. These four Irish chasing stars won a host of top-class races in their time and reached the pinnacle when successful in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Not always the most consistent of jumpers, Captain Christy was still capable of winning a Gold Cup and two King Georges, one of which when completing a staggering 30 length demolition of Bula. He was trained by the legendary Irish horseman Pat Taaffe. Pat had ridden Arkle to his three Gold Cup victories in the 60’s.
A decade later Dawn Run returned from injury to win the Durkan as a seven-year-old. As a hurdler she had won the English, Irish and French Champion Hurdles. She became the only racehorse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup when taking the latter in a dramatic finish in 1986. Tragedy struck just months later, when the famous mare died after a fall in France, when trying to win the French Champion Hurdle for a second time. So treasured was she, that the news was carried on the front page of the Irish Times.
A further decade past before another Irish chaser began creating headlines. This time it was Imperial Call winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Ireland. He’d fought off One Man before staying on strongly to beat the future Grand National winner Rough Quest by four lengths. Falls and injuries plagued much of his career, though he did show flashes of his best form with victories in the Munster National, the Punchestown Gold Cup and of course the John Durkan in 98.
During a stellar period for the event at the turn of the century, which saw Native Upmanship, Florida Pearl and Beef or Salmon take the race, it was in 2004 that the outstanding Kicking King set out to dominate the staying chase division.
First the Durkan and then the King George fell to the powerful galloper trained by Pat Taaffe’s son Tom. The trainer then emulated his father by sending the horse to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. A further win in the King George of 2005 was followed by a lengthy spell on the side-lines due to a tendon injury. Sadly, he was never able to get back to his best when returning to racing in 2008. He was retired from the sport in November that same year.
Since Kicking King’s success in the John Durkan, the event has gone to a number of quality horses, though it’s fair to say that it has not been won by one of the real stars of Jump Racing. There is a chance however, that last year’s winner could go on to achieve great things. Many certainly expect him to do so. Don Cossack won the race a year ago and is now rated one of the best staying chasers either side of the Irish Sea.
Time will tell if ‘The Don’ can climb the ladder to star status, but his performances in recent times suggest he has every chance.
On Sunday the likes of Djakadam, Valseur Lido, Foxrock and Gilgamboa will look to state their claim as contenders for this winters top honours. It’s a classy looking renewal, in keeping with its illustrious past.