As the weather brightens and the days get longer, the Irish National Hunt season looks forward to an event which has become a key fixture in the calendar, the Punchestown Festival.
The event takes place at the end of April and beginning of May each year and features a host of championship events.
The jewel in the crown is the Punchestown Gold Cup, a relatively new initiative in its current format, but one which has quickly become established as an end of season target for the elite band of staying chasers.
The race commands Grade 1 status and is open to horses aged five years or older. It takes place over a distance of about 3 miles and 1 furlong and there are seventeen fences to be negotiated.
The race became established as a contest for established Gold Cup class horses as recently as 1999 but was competed for many years before then as a top class novice chase.
Among the top class winners of the race in those days were the legendary Arkle, Fort Leney, Glencaraig Lady, Jack Of Trumps, By The Way and Carvill’s Hill.
Run in 1999 as the Punchestown Heineken Gold Cup, the inaugural running brought together a mouth watering array of Ireland’s top chasers. The 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Imperial Call rolled back the years to beat the great Florida Pearl and Doran’s Pride and the race was immediately off to the perfect start.
The following year Ted Walsh’s tough chestnut Commanche Court won the race just a week after claiming the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. In a dramatic race only five of the twelve that started out completed, with Danoli and Doran’s Pride among those who failed to complete. Commanche Court repelled a host of English trained horses to keep the prize at home but that signalled a common enough trend for English horses to add further intrigue to this prestigious race.
The 2001 race was staged at Fairyhouse and saw Moscow Express defeat a classy field of domestic runners, including Florida Pearl, Doran’s Pride, Native Upmanship and Commanche Court. It also signalled the blossoming talent of Barry Geraghty.
The following year Geraghty partnered Florida Pearl to victory at the horse’s third attempt, the race back at Punchestown. It was a thrilling climax to a wonderful season which had brought the veteran chaser success in the King George VI Chase and at Aintree prior to beating Native Upmanship, Alexander Banquet and Moscow Express.
In 2003 he was back again but no match for Francois Doumen’s French raider First Gold, who beat Rince Ri and Native Upmanship.
By this stage Irish racing had a new star in Beef Or Salmon and Michael Hourigan’s chestnut won the race in 2004 beating Gold Cup placed Harbour Pilot, First Gold and Rince Ri.
Whilst Beef Or Salmon became a real stalwart of the Irish racing scene, he was usurped by a new king the following season: Kicking King. Having won the King George VI Chase and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Tom Taafe’s horse ended his 2004/05 season with a Punchestown Gold Cup success over a strong line-up including Rule Supreme, Pizarro, Kingscliff and First Gold and gave that man Geraghty his third victory in the race.
A year later Kicking King was on the sidelines through injury and another Irish chaser War Of Attrition picked up his Cheltenham crown before coming on to Punchestown glory over the Hourigan pair of Beef Or Salmon and Hi Cloy.
After a few near misses the English finally trained a winner of the race in 2007 as Paul Nicholls sent over one of his powerful assembly of top class chasers: Neptune Collonges. The exciting grey was only a 6 year old at this stage and would become a regular winner of big Irish prizes over the years, a regular placed horse in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and then a Grand National winner.
In the 2007 renewal of the Punchestown Gold Cup he beat a back to form Kingscliff and In Compliance with Monkerhostin and Beef Or Salmon further back.
Ridden by Ruby Walsh on both occasions, the grey won the 2008 running to become the first (and to date only) horse to win the race twice. It was Walsh’s fourth success in the race having ridden Imperial Call and Commanche Court and he is the most successful jockey in the race’s history.
Neptune Collonges’ victory came at the expense of Snowy Morning and Mossbank with Beef Or Salmon down the field and Kicking King pulling up.
The 2009 renewal was run in soft to heavy going and conditions proved tough with only six of the twelve runners completing. However the exciting young chaser Notre Pere was in his element and would go on to win a Welsh Grand National later in the year. He easily beat Schindler’s Hunt by 13 lengths and among those who failed to finish were two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners: War Of Attrition and Imperial Commander, plus the top class Alberta’s Run.
In 2010 all eyes were on the return to Ireland of the mighty Denman. Paul Nicholls’ Cheltenham Gold Cup winner had once again ran well in that race to finish second for the second time and had demolished his rivals on his previous visit at Leopardstown.
However things did not go to plan as the horse pulled hard and failed to settle, finding the right-handed Punchestown course difficult to negotiate. The race went the way of another English trained chaser as Philip Hobbs’s Planet Of Sound proved an impressive winner from War Of Attrition and the former RSA Chase winner Cooldine, with Denman in fourth. In a race of real depth, further back were Tranquil Sea and Follow The Plan, while Rare Bob, Barbers Shop and Notre Pere failed to complete.
Last the previous year, Follow The Plan was an up and coming chaser who would eventually win a big prize at the Grand National meeting. Before then however there was the not inconsiderable matter of Punchestown Gold Cup success. In 2011 Paul Nicholls sent the third of his trio of magnificent chasers across the Irish Sea: Kauto Star. The dual Gold Cup winner was like Denman before him, big box office. He had run a mighty race to finish third in the latest renewal at Cheltenham but ran a lifeless race here, eventually being pulled up by Ruby Walsh.
In a race of outsiders, Follow The Plan came home best of all to saunter to an 11 length success over Vic Venturi and Rare Bob.
There was another shock winner of the race in 2012 as China Rock, fourth to Sizing Europe earlier in the meeting, got the better of Follow The Plan, Quel Esprit and Rubi Light.
The 2013 renewal saw a classy race won by the Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs. In a thrilling race he battled down the straight with former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Long Run and the top class First Lieutenant to gain the verdict in a race of bobbing heads with Captain Chris further back in fourth.
It was a fitting renewal of a race which attracts the very best staying chasers from Ireland and the UK and never ceases to thrill.
Roll of honour:
|2004||Beef or Salmon|
|2006||War Of Attrition|
|2010||Planet of Sound|
|2011||Follow the Plan|
|2013||Sir Des Champs|