Harry Reels in The Years and Mullins Reels in The Winners
A back to form Unowhatimeanharry sprang a 16/1 surprise in the €300,000 Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown yesterday evening.
The Harry Fry-trained eleven-year-old claimed a famous victory in this race in 2017 but a few of his recent runs suggested that his best days could be behind him. However, a return to Punchestown brought about a major return to form in this J.P. McManus-owned gelding who was ridden by Mark Walsh.
Unowhatimeanharry was left in a clear lead when Vision Des Flos blundered away his chance at the last and he kept going well to win by three lengths from the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Bacardys, Bapaume and Killultagh Vic.
“He is a horse that means an awful lot us. He is 11 years of age and he is here winning a Grade 1, it’s the second time that he has won the race, and we thought that his Grade 1 days, and his winning days, were behind him on his last couple of starts, but Mark (Walsh) was brilliant on him,” commented Harry Fry.
“He didn’t enjoy himself down the inner at Aintree. He is 11 now so we said we had nothing to lose so we would let him go out there and enjoy it and he has just come alive.
"We are absolutely over the moon, he means an awful lot to us and just delighted to win another one with him, it’s incredible.
We love coming here and it’s been a good meeting for us. We came here with our biggest team yet and it hadn’t gone to plan for the first two days but this one means more than any of them. If we could have picked any of them to come out and win a race it would be this fellow. I’m absolutely over the moon,” he added.
The Grade 1 Ryanair Novices Chase featured no fewer than four last-time-out Grade 1 winners locking horns in Defi Du Seuil, Ornua, Voix Su Reve and Duc Des Genievres, however that quartet were upstaged by the rapidly progressing Chacun Pour Soi.
The Rich and Susannah Ricci-owned French-bred had returned from a three-year absence when running away with a beginners chase at Naas in March, and he took apart the competitive field under Robbie Power, as it proved to be business as usual for the Willie Mullins team on the first day of the post Ruby Walsh era.
The winning rider could not hide his approval for the four and-a-quarter-length winner as he said: “It’s a very good performance from the horse. One run in a very ordinary beginners chase at Naas and then to step into a Grade 1 with the Arkle winner (Duc Des Genievres), Ornua who is a Grade 1 winner and Defi Du Seuil is a hell of a good horse too, and it was an unbelievable performance with plenty of improvement to come from him.
“Don’t doubt a training performance like that from Willie Mullins, he is used to doing it. He is a very exciting horse,” Power concluded.
Mullins himself said: "He is a very good horse. You had an Arkle winner, a JLT winner and a Ryanair Gold Cup winner in the race so you can't expect that (performance) but I knew he was a very, very good horse.
"We've had him for two and a half years and he had some niggly problems. He came right at the end of March and I said 'right, I'm going to run him before he goes wrong again' and he won thirty one lengths at Naas. I think we've seen a real racehorse."
The six-year-old was due to have been ridden by the recently retired Ruby Walsh and winning owner Rich Ricci was visibly emotional following his first Grade 1 success of the week.
“He is very good. Pierre Boulard bought him for us as a three-year-old, so we have been waiting three or four years for him to be good for us. He had a couple of niggles and some setbacks.
“He was expensive when we bought him, we always thought the world of him, and we fancied him today. I was just delighted he has shown us what he is capable of and I was just hoping Ruby (Walsh) would ride him.
“I think Ruby is magic. For my nickel, he is the greatest of all time. Like most people I am very sad that he is leaving – that is selfish, he is very happy, and I am delighted to see him looking so well. He looked so much younger yesterday after announcing his retirement. I’m happy for him, it’s a great family, but it won’t be the same for me,” added Ricci.
The Mullins camp had earlier sent out the favourite My Sister Sarah to land the Grade B Conway Piling Handicap Hurdle, as the five-year-old filly bounced back from consecutive disappointing displays at the recent festivals in Cheltenham and Fairyhouse, by getting the better of Young Ted by two lengths.
“She had disappointed both at Cheltenham and in Fairyhouse, she didn’t get the clearest of runs at Fairyhouse, but it took me a long time to get her on the bridle there today and I ended up getting there too soon because of it,” said Paul Townend having partnered his first winner since the retirement of Ruby Walsh.
“It’s nice to ride a winner there and to take the pressure off. Ruby (Walsh) was a huge advantage to me. He has been so good to me since the time that I started riding, guiding me every way that he could and do you know so fair, even when he was riding against me, he would tell you all about the horses. We seemed to get on very well and he will leave a big hole,” added the soon to be crowned champion jockey.
Townend and Mullins combined once again as Elfile provided the Closutton trainer with his eighth victory of the week in the Close Brothers Mares’ Novice Hurdle. The five-year-old, who is owned by British businessman Kenneth Alexander, was sent off as a well-supported odds-on favourite having chased home her owners Honeysuckle in Grade 1 company over Easter. To the delight of her supporters, she pulled clear in the home straight to win impressively by ten lengths from the Tom Gibney-trained Rhythm Divine.
“Honeysuckle must be some filly because our filly needs 2m 4f, so that is a good compliment to her and just shows how good Honeysuckle is,” remarked the winning trainer having completed a treble on the day.
“Our filly is a real slick jumper. Paul (Townend) said the ground was a bit too good for her today, but the conditions of the race suited her, so you have to take your chance and she did it well.”
The Liam Cusack-trained Snugsborough Hall bounced back from a luckless outing at Fairyhouse, where he was taken out at the second last fence, with an impressive success in the Pigsback.com Handicap Chase. Denis O’Regan took his time on the 11/4 favourite but when the eight-year-old came with his effort he settled the race in just a few strides. He surged clear of his rivals after the second last to win by eleven lengths.
“He was extremely unlucky at Fairyhouse, he looked to be travelling well, but you never know really. Denis (O’Regan) could have done with a lead for a little longer, but we are just delighted, it’s great to have a winner at Punchestown, it’s a great prize, great for the owners, great for the yard it’s just brilliant,” said Cusack.
“We took out time with him early on, we probably ran him over longer trips just to teach him to settle a little bit because he can be his own worst enemy at times. That’s why he runs in the hood. But he is maturing all the time and I was delighted with the way that he travelled into the race. He is probably the nicest horse that I have and hopefully he will keep progressing now,” added the trainer.
Local trainer Peter Maher, who specialises in the meeting’s cross country races, won the Mongey Communications La Touche Cup for the second time as Ballyboker Bridge improved on last year’s third. The Punchestown cross country regular made most of the running for stand in jockey Sean Flanagan (replacing J.J. Slevin who was stood down after an early fall) and came home 25 lengths clear of the 50/1 chance Vital Island.
"I love the La Touche" Maher beamed in the winner’s enclosure afterwards: "We do a lot of pre-training, we don’t really train, but all the same we have trained a winner at the Punchestown Festival for every year for six or seven years.”
Maher quipped: "This was a warm up for the Gold Cup next year! I love Punchestown and it is my dream to win three banks races in a week here at the Punchestown Festival but that will hardly happen as long as Enda Bolger is around!"
Winning jockey Sean Flanagan added: “He has jumped out and settled great and jumped from fence to fence and he has made my job very easily, he jumped went from fence to fence. From what I was told he can be very keen, Peter (Maher) left it completely to me and when he was in front, he was idling away and when something got to him, he went on again, so I just left it to him. He has gone his own gallop and I have basically just been a passenger. It was funny I only remarked earlier that I had no ride in the banks races this week but what a great spare to pick up and anything for Peter Maher is going to be absolutely unreal over the banks."
Polished Steel got Jessica Harrington up and running for the week in the JLT Handicap Hurdle. The 16/1 chance made the running for Robbie Power and he kept the field at bay in the straight to hold Sil Ver Klass by a length and three quarters.
“The change in tactics suited and so did the ear plugs. He is quite free going and we just decided to give up trying to settle him and let him get on with things and he has settled lovely in front and jumped super. He has a very high cruising speed, so I was able to save a bit turning in and he has galloped all the way to the line,” said Power.
Leopardstown bumper winner Sixshooter preserved his unbeaten record when getting the better of The Big Getaway in a titanic battle to the closing stages of the Kildare Post INH Flat Race.
The Noel Meade-trained son of Well Chosen coming out on top in the hands of Mark O’Hare at a price of 8/1.
“By god he is tough,” said the winning rider. “I could have a length up on Patrick (Mullins, The Big Getaway), but I didn’t want to. I said I would just keep him alongside for company and I am really pleased with that, he is tough as nails.”
The attendance on day three of the Punchestown Festival was 20,756. The penultimate day of the festival gets underway at 3.40pm on Friday with an eight-race card that is headlined by the €300,000 BETDAQ Punchestown Champion Hurdle and the much-anticipated clash of Gordon Elliott’s ten-time Grade 1 winner Apples Jade and the two-time Cheltenham Champion Hurdler Buveur D’air.