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Punchestown Preview: Stars on show

Tony McFadden sets the scene ahead of next week's Punchestown Festival

The 2014/15 British Jumps season may have drawn to a close at Sandown on Saturday, with 20-time Champion Jockey AP McCoy calling time on a remarkable career, but some of national hunt racing’s biggest stars will be on show at the Punchestown Festival, which runs from Tuesday April 28 to Saturday May 2.

Tony McCoy enjoyed a period of unprecedented dominance as a rider, and Willie Mullins is currently enjoying a similar level of supremacy in the training ranks, sweeping up the big races with his squad of superstars. There are 12 Grade 1 prizes up for grabs at Punchestown and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mullins walk away with more than he leaves behind.

Mullins certainly has a strong hand on the opening day as Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victor Douvan looks sure to go off a warm order in the Herald Champion Novice, the race that was won in such scintillating style last year by subsequent Champion Hurdler Faugheen. With Faugheen looking set to dominate the Champion Hurdle scene for some time, Douvan may follow in the footsteps of last season’s Supreme Novices’ winner, Vautour, by embarking upon a novice chasing campaign, and he certainly has the size and scope to reach the top in that sphere.

Vautour established himself as one of the most exciting chasers in recent years by putting up a sparkling performance in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, earning a Timeform rating of 171p - the same as fellow novice and Gold Cup winner Coneygree. Vautour will have to face more experienced rivals as he steps into open company in the Champion Chase, but, in truth, he’s already established himself as a notch above the likes of Hidden Cyclone and Twinlight, and he can make the most of what looks a good opportunity.

RSA Chase winner Don Poli may not be as flashy as Vautour but he’s developing a formidable record – as well as quite the fan club – and plenty have marked him down as the horse who will finally provide Mullins with the Cheltenham Gold Cup win he craves. Punchestown racegoers are likely to see Don Poli – rated 161p – in the Growise Champion Novice Chase on Tuesday and he too, like Douvan and Vautour, is sure to go off a warm order.

Grade 1 betting opportunities are going to be thin on the ground on Tuesday, but Wednesday’s action promises to be a lot more competitive, the highlight being the Punchestown Gold Cup, featuring a rematch between Djakadam and Road to Riches, who finished second and third respectively in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. There's not a great deal between the pair on Timeform ratings, or in the betting, and a good race looks in store.

The finish to last year’s three-mile novice hurdle was fought out between Nicky Henderson’s Aintree winner Beat That and Martin Pipe victor Don Poli, and there could be another fascinating Anglo-Irish clash this time around as Thistlecrack and Killultagh Vic are both possibles. Other intriguing entries include chaser-in-the-making No More Heroes and Fletchers Flyer, who won a bumper at last year’s Punchestown Festival.

Record-breaking hurdler Hurricane Fly has enjoyed a successful season, despite his advancing years, and he’s set to be the star of the show on Thursday if he takes up his engagement in the three-mile World Series Hurdle. Hurricane Fly has yet to run over three miles, but he did win over two and a half miles in testing ground earlier in his career, and even a repeat of the form he’s shown this season – which has been a notch below his imperious best- may well be good enough.

Hurricane Fly is probably the most popular horse in training, but front-running novice chaser Un de Sceaux is arguably the most exciting, and he too is set to run at Punchestown on Thursday, the two-mile Ryanair Novice Chase his target. Un de Sceaux fell on his chasing bow at Thurles, but he’s been nearly foot-perfect since, really impressing with his attacking style, and he looks set to rule the two-mile chasing division for years to come.

Champion hurdler Faugheen struts his stuff on Friday and he should have few problems extending his unbeaten record, while Annie Power - who so memorably fell with the race at her mercy at Cheltenham - is going to be a very short-priced favourite in Saturday's Mares' Hurdle.

A feature of the Punchestown Festival is the number of National Hunt Flat races which are staged. These races can often showcase a star of the future, and a couple of horses worth looking out for include Disko, an easy winner on debut, and Ok Corral, who won in taking style at Kempton, beating a subsequent winner of a valuable prize.

 
Free Race Pass of the Day
WETHERBY 4:40
Sunday 26th April
1. SECRET HINT 107

107.6

silk David Probert
Andrew Balding

9. GRAN CANARIA QUEEN 106

106.6

silk David Allan
Tim Easterby

2. AUGUSTA ADA 106

106.6

silk Robert Winston
Ollie Pears