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Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Does Punchestown Hold Up Irish Record at the Festival?

Marine Nationale, Supreme

Our Festival Pointers are becoming ever more important as the big meeting at Cheltenham nears in four weeks’ time.

Last week’s column on Kempton found few winners came from the King George track, but Joe Napier heads back to Ireland to delve into Punchestown‘s results, for any clues as to winners from over in County Kildare.

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Overview

Our look at the racecourses of England and Ireland so far has seen us take in two courses very likely to provide winners at the Cheltenham Festival, in Cheltenham itself and Leopardstown, as well as one track seemingly unlikely to in Kempton.

For our fourth look into where Festival winners warm up for Prestbury Park, we look at a course that sits somewhere in the middle: Punchestown. Weaving right-handed, opposedly to Cheltenham, but based where so many recent winners have come from in Ireland, we would expect its strike rate of producing Festival heroes in the last decade to sit somewhere below Cheltenham’s 20%, but comfortably above Kempton’s 5.7%.

However, the nature of the track perhaps counts for slightly more. There are, of course, some races which will almost never produce Festival winners, with several 0-95 and 90-102 handicaps being too low grade. Nevertheless, in the 538 contests run at Punchestown earlier that season, only 40 Festival winners have emerged, coming at a strike rate of 7.4% (this excludes five races previously run in the last decade in May at Punchestown, none of which have seen a Festival winner run).

This is probably lower than expected, and also does not take into account the Punchestown Festival at the end of April. However, it would be disingenuous to include any winners from that meeting given it happens after Cheltenham in the same season.

538 is the most races held by a course we have looked at so far, so while that number contains a fair share of races for horses who would never boast the ability to run at the Festival, there are still plenty of contests in which we would expect a few more winners than there have actually been.


Hurdles

Annie Power won the Quevega Mares’ Hurdle on her comeback en route to Champion Hurdle glory in 2016.

The majority of races run at Punchestown throughout the season are completed over hurdles. Of the 538 races in the last decade’s survey, 329 were conducted over timber, producing a grand total of 22 Festival winners. The percentage success rate for Punchestown overall is 7.4%, with this dropping to 6.7% over hurdles.

This is not helped by races at the top end of the Graded spectrum failing to pull their weight. For instance, the only Grade 1 over hurdles run prior to the Cheltenham Festival at Punchestown is the Morgiana Hurdle, but this has seen just one horse go on and follow up at Cheltenham. Even this was done in unorthodox fashion, with Nichols Canyon claiming the 2m contest here in November, before going on to win the Stayers’ Hurdle over 3m in March.

Instead, the biggest hitters when it comes to striking at the Festival are a pair of mares’ races, while there are a couple of surprisingly stellar maiden hurdles run in June and October that have produced as many and more novice winners at the Festival than the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer.

Starting with the mares’ races, two winners emerged from the Listed mares’ contest run in November: Let’s Dance took this during her novice campaign before winning the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, while Black Tears was only third here prior to a surprise success in the 2021 Mares’ Hurdle. However, the Quevega Mares’ Hurdle, in late February/early March is surprisingly potent at producing Festival winners given its close proximity to the big meeting.

Black Tears won that contest en route, as did Annie Power prior to her Champion Hurdle success in 2016. Apple’s Jade was turned over by Limini in the race though got her revenge in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The maiden hurdles in question were both over 2m. In June, both Delta Work and Limini got off the mark nine months before their respective Pertemps Final and Mares Novices’ victories, though the October 2m maiden hurdle is the most potent: all of Labaik, Samcro and Marine Nationale won there before Grade 1 novice hurdle victories. On the other hand, only Douvan and Impaire Et Passe have followed up runs in the Moscow Flyer with victory at Cheltenham.

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Fences

Impervious (right) was the second successive winner of the Grade 3 SkyBet Novice Chase to follow up at the Cheltenham Festival last season.

There have been fewer than half the number of chases as there have been hurdle races at Punchestown in the last decade in the build-up to Cheltenham. That said, there have been just seven fewer Festival winners, with 15 emerging from the 145 Punchestown chases before March.

They stand in complete contrast to the hurdling contests, as the Graded races have really stepped up in this regard. 12 of those 15 winners came in Graded competition. Not a single runner in a beginners’ chase went on to win a race at the Festival, with just two handicaps providing a winner. In both cases, it was last year’s Kim Muir winner Angels Dawn, who ran here twice before that Thursday win, with the other Festival-winning provider being the Risk Of Thunder Chase over the banks: Delta Work won that in 2022 before a second Cross Country success.

The title of most prolific race is shared by the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase in November, and the Grade 3 Novice Chase in mid-January currently bearing the title of the SkyBet Novice Chase. Both have produced four winners, the former through three Ryanair winners and last year’s Gold Cup hero Galopin Des Champs, who won both races last season. Min and Allaho both won this on their way to a Ryaniar victory, though Allaho’s first Cheltenham success came off the back of a season in which he was only sixth in the John Durkan to start off with.

The novice chase is the more interesting contest though, in that it has only been run six times. Therefore, the four winners it has produced gives it a particularly high success rate. The last two winners were Bob Olinger and Impervious, who won the Turners and Mares’ Chases respectively, while The Storyteller (3rd 2018) and A Plus Tard (2nd 2019) were beaten in the first two editions in the race before finding success in handicaps in March.

Success could even have been greater given Carefully Selected and Envoi Allen were both odds-on shots for Festival novice chases after their victories in the Grade 3 only to both fall at Cheltenham. This is a race seriously worth looking out for from a form perspective.


Bumpers

City Island won a Punchestown bumper in June 2018; nine months later he won the 2019 Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle.

A high proportion of the bumpers run at Punchestown throughout the season are the domain of mares only, so only one Champion Bumper winner, the mare Relegate, had run at the track previously in the last ten seasons.

However, the one interesting nugget is that the bumper run at the June meeting the year before has produced two Festival winners nine months on. Both were novice hurdlers, evidently deemed forward enough to tackle obstacles after their bumper successes. One was Marine Nationale last term, the other being City Island in 2018/19.

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Festival Pointers

The hurdlers from Punchestown’s meetings this season may not amount to much from a Cheltenham Festival perspective, but keep your eye on whether Striking gets into a handicap given the maiden hurdle he won last June has had a surprising amount of success at the meeting. Hispanic Moon, meanwhile, took the Listed Mares’ Hurdle in November, and could mount a tilt at either handicap or mares’ only for Henry De Bromhead, albeit at a big price.

She is also due to line up in the Quevega Mares’ Hurdle before the Festival, in which she could meet Gala Marceau. That race is another strong Cheltenham pointer.

From a chasing point of view, the John Durkan is always a good barometer of a Grade 1 horse’s credentials. With Fastorslow and Galopin Des Champs having run in the race this season, its record can be expected to continue.The SkyBet Novice Chase has an even more remarkable record given its four Cheltenham Festival winners in six runnings. The last two winners of that race have scored in Graded company, which speaks positively for Spillane’s Tower, though Festival winners in handicaps have come from among the beaten horses in the past. Therefore, keep an eye on the entries for Blood Destiny, Silent Approach and Imagine.

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