Ireland’s leading trainer this season, Gordon Elliott, looks set to unleash a formidable team at the 2017 Punchestown Festival as he bids for his first championship.
Elliott has currently won around €355,000, more than 10-times title-holder Willie Mullins, and the Punchestown Festival – with over €2.9 million in prize money – is likely to be crucial in the battle for the trainers’ championship. The season finishes at the end of Punchestown on Saturday 29th April.
There were few easier winners at last year’s Punchestown Festival than Apple’s Jade, who ran away with the Grade 1 AES 4YO Hurdle by nine lengths when trained by Willie Mullins. Now with Elliott, she looked right back to her best at last month’s Cheltenham Festival when fighting off Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini to win the Grade 1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
She is entered in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle, Grade 1 BETDAQ Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Grade 1 Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Champion Hurdle and her trainer has yet to finalise her target.
“We were delighted with her at Cheltenham – she’s so tough and brave,” said Elliott. “We decided to miss Aintree and go straight to Punchestown and she’s in really great form at home.
“She has come out of Cheltenham very well and I have put her in everything at Punchestown. We’ll have a look through the races and decide nearer the time what she goes for. But I’m really looking forward to running her.”
The talented but sometimes enigmatic Labaik sprang a 25/1 surprise in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and Elliott revealed that the grey could take on the best two-milers in the €250,000 BETDAQ Punchestown Champion Hurdle on Friday 28th April.
Labaik is also in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle on Tuesday 25th April, where he would renew rivalry with Cheltenham runner-up Melon.
“We never made a secret about how good we thought the horse was before Cheltenham, he just wasn’t brilliant at jumping off (at the start) sometimes,” said Elliott. “We’ve put him in the BETDAQ Champion Hurdle at Punchestown and that’s a possibility.
“He’s definitely running at Punchestown so if he doesn’t go for that race he’ll line up in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle on the opening day. He’s in great form. He just does what he has to do at home and I’m looking forward to his next run.”
It promises to be a memorable renewal of the €250,000 Coral Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday 26th April, and Elliott is hoping that this season’s Grade 1 Lexus Chase hero Outlander can put a disappointing run at Cheltenham behind him.
“The plan is for Outlander to run in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup,” added Elliott. “He was good in the Lexus and we’ll just look to put that run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind him. He was beaten after the first, he was never going and we will put a line through it. He’s going well at home.”
Death Duty had been unbeaten over hurdles before unseating rider Bryan Cooper when sent off a warm favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and he is set to reappear at Punchestown along with Champagne Classic, winner of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
Both have entries in the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle over 3 miles on Wednesday 26th April, and the 2m 4f Grade 1 Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle two days later.
“It was disappointing with Death Duty at Cheltenham. We’ve always thought a lot of him and he came back from that race light. He’s in much better form and the plan is to go to Punchestown all being well,” added Elliott.
“I was delighted to win the race named after my old boss, Martin Pipe, with Champagne Classic. That victory meant a lot to me and I think we’ll run Champagne Classic in one of the novice races at Punchestown. I’m not sure which one he’d go for yet.”
Mega Fortune finished runner-up in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham after winning the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown in February and he will bid to finish the 2017 Punchestown Festival on a high.
Chris Jones’ juvenile is being aimed at the Grade 1 AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle on Punchestown’s final day, Saturday 29th April.
“Mega Fortune jumped really well at Cheltenham and just came up against a good one in Defi Du Seuil,” said Elliott. “I’m looking forward to Punchestown with him and he’ll go for the AES Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle. He’s been in brilliant form since Cheltenham.”
The mare Fayonagh was left at the standing start in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and showed a brilliant recovery under Jamie Codd to get up and win the Grade 1 event.
She is another set to reappear at Punchestown on Wednesday 26th April, in either the Grade 1 Punchestown Champion INH Flat Race or the Grade 3 Weatherbys GSB EBF Mares Flat Race.
“She’s normally great starting off and it was a shame she got left at Cheltenham. Jamie gave her a brilliant ride to recover and she must be a really tough mare to have done what she did,” said Elliott.
“Jamie recommended her to the owners and she won by 20 lengths in a Listed bumper on her first start for us so she’s been great. We’ve got the option of the championship race or the mares’ contest with her.”
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