Over the next five days, we’ll see the lowering of the curtain on the Irish National Hunt season. We’ll see Rachel Blackmore trying to make up the four-race deficit that stands between her and Paul Townend in the race for the Championship and pretty well every day, there will be a race that decides future plans, makes, breaks or creates reputations, or provides a racing memory that could endure a century. Today it might come at 6:30 when ENVOI ALLEN and MONKFISH meet for the first time. It might possibly be from an English victory in the 5:25 when NUBE NEGRA (runner up in The Champion Chase) meets the winner of the Ryanair ALLAHO.
At Punchestown, as I have perhaps mentioned before, almost everything is possible and like all favourite racecourses, there will be the rituals and traditions that must be undertaken for the day to start lucky, or to end well. Those traditions make up the cobbles of carefully trodden paths, where every social and moral pothole is mapped, small adventures in their own right. It is the same at Aintree and at Cheltenham and at Goodwood and at Royal Ascot. Wednesday is the day you do this, and on Friday you always go there. In Punchestown, it seemed simple. The Killashee Hotel, sometimes the K Club, sometimes milord. Full Irish breakfast, Racing Post, form, Coffee. Taxi to Course. First Pint of Guinness. Lunch in the Pavilion (before they made it all chichi). Racing, Drinking, Laughing. Craic. Taxi to Naas. I used to have a Taxi driver whose fare I basically doubled so that when I telephoned he came straight away. It cost about the same as buying a car but was hugely useful and he was a kind man, who never smirked at my drunkenness and got me back safe. On one occasion I had slumped badly and he found me and got me into my hotel room, which was above and beyond.
So then the racing is finished and you’re now drinking with your new best friends, in The Pavilion, or their box, or the Kildare Street Clubroom. It is at this moment critique that maturity should step in and take a hand. It doesn’t. Once I heard my Common-Sense-self saying “I have now been drinking solidly for the last six hours and I need to eat soon in order to mop it all up.” “What time is it?” asked the Chef D’Equipe. “8.30,” I said. “Well,” he said, “We’d better get ready to go out!” He said it in the tone of someone who believed that it was a late sunny afternoon at the vicarage and that, in a few moments, Sherry would be poured and some peanuts passed around. After that, we might have an early three-course supper of delicious Irish cuisine with a small glass of New World wine, and then have a post-prandial Armagnac in a leather armchair by the fire in the Killashee drawing-room. That’s what it sounded like.
What he actually said was entirely silent, but understood by all, except me. “Yer man’s right let’s get into Naas unless you girls really want to bugger up the evening by threatening to go and get changed which would be silly because we’re only going to Haydens and have a drink there before we go out.” Haydens is one of the five bars you must get drunk in before you die. Go there on a racing day. Do not stand by the bar. Instead, catch the man’s eye and bellow out your order, pass the note forward and get your pints and change passed back. This is why you don’t stand next to the bar. You will [a] be busy and [b] be drenched. By 11:00 pm most restaurants have shut – except for the enormous Chinese next door. Up the stairs and into a cavernous room that easily sat 150 people. There is the son of the Taoiseach sat with three leading jockeys, who have ridden today and will be riding tomorrow. Drink has been taken and singing has broken out. There are a brace of Owners and trainers and a conditional jockey who looks 12. There is enough food on their table to provide hospitality to every box at the Festival. The English trainer is there looking bemused, but then you realise he is on exactly the same trajectory. If three boiled bats were put in front of him now, he would eat them in the hope of stopping the damage being done to his liver. It is, of course too late – and I have the taxi.
So it is that I have probably been racing at Punchestown a dozen times and I have never yet eaten Irish food in a restaurant – except Breakfast. On the other hand, I have enjoyed myself more than is normally right and I wish I was there.
Talking of damaging outcomes, here are today’s proposals for the first day of Punchestown and an interesting Listed race at Nottingham.
3:40 Have The Conversation Say Yes To Organ Donation Novice Hcap Hdl (4yo+) 2m½f 21 run
The first of many highly competitive races. HALLOWED STAR will like the better ground, looks well weighted given previous runs and won’t mind the big field either. SCHOLASTIC has possibilities and with Skybet offering seven places I’ll also have SWELLTIME e/w
HALLOWED STAR Win – SCHOLASTIC e/w – SWELLTIME e/w
3:55 NOTTINGHAM British EBF Supporting Racing To School Nottinghamshire Oaks Stakes Cl1 (4yo+) 1m2f 8 run
APRICOT MOON was relatively cheap at £55k when sold out of Andy Oliver’s Tyrone yard. She has some decent form including her being only beaten 6l in the Irish 1000Gns. Now with George Boughey, her target is the Kensington Place Stakes, which given George’s enthusiasm for her seems entirely plausible. She’s had a wind operation and 8s seems generous. UNKNOWN PLEASURES has been bought on by David O’Meara who has perhaps fixed whatever was wrong – because wrong she was in 2020. The handicapper has left her with 89, which I think should probably be more like 96. In other words, she is capable of getting a place in this if all eight stand their ground.
APRICOT MOON e/w – UNKNOWN PLEASURES e/w – Add the Favourite for 6 x ½ pt CFC
4:15 eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Nov Hdl (G1) (5yo+) 2m½f 5 run
BLUE LORD Win
4:50 Killashee Hotel Hcap Hdl (GB) (4yo+) 2m½f 25 run
Hard not to see JP McManus taking this. Several come from the County Hurdle including CAYD BOY who gets top-weight. GENTLEMAN DE MEE ran far too freely even in the hood and got duffed up in the Martin Pipe – perhaps the drop back in distance will focus the mind. MAGIC TRICKS gets 4lbs for his Fairyhouse Easter 2nd and has possibilities, but all my ratings suggest a surprise and I shall be plumping for these three against them all.
RUAILLE BUAILLE e/w – POLISHED STEEL e/w – CERBERUS e/w
5:25 William Hill Champion Chs (G1) (5yo+) 2m 6 run
CHACUN POUR SOIR was a disappointing 3rd in the Champion Chase and I don’t think today will provide any compensation either. ALLAHO and is dropped intrip after dazzling in the Ryanair. Rachael Blackmore gets the ride one assumes on the owners’ instructions. Good for them. However, the thrill might be of seeing the Brits biting back for the Cheltenham comeuppance with the Skeltons getting NUBE NEGRA to go one better – possibly by having a cleaner jumping round. Good for The Skeltons for the chutzpah if nothing else.
NUBE NEGRA Win
5:55 Goffs Land Rover Bumper (4-5yo) 2m½f 24 run
NONBINDING is trained by Sneezy and Cullentra House whoever was training has won three of the last five Land Rovers. He is a ½-brother to five winners, notably last year Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow.
6:30 Dooley Insurance Group Champion Nov Chs (G1) (5yo+) 3m½f 4 run
Only four runners and MONKFISH takes on ENVOI ALLEN. The former was far from fluent, made a mistake at the last and still won the Brown Advisory. The latter was unbeaten in three chase starts before Cheltenham, but appeared unsettled beforehand, was weak in the market and jumped like a dog. Perhaps the whole yard move had been too much, perhaps it was just the lack of a crowd. The one thing that is certain is that this is 3½f further than he’s been before, plus the other two aren’t exactly rubbish with COLREEVY the winner of the Festival’s Liberthine Mares Chase also coming here and getting a 7lb sex allowance. Is it possible she might win it? Yes. Monkfish was unsettled – Envoi Allen fell and looked unhappy and might not get the distance and in both cases, the horses are too good to waste trying to win an unwinnable race, so towels might get thrown in quicker than normal.
COLREEVY to win – 1pt RFC with MONKFISH
7:00 Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chs for the Ladies Perpetual Cup (5yo+) 3m1f 15 run
The first two in the market deserve to be there, but there is no value for this first Festival race over The Banks course. The e/w value might lie with
VITAL ISLAND e/w
7:35 Irish Field – We Are All About The Horse Bumper (4yo) 2m½f 22 run
DONNRUA DREAM e/w