Declarations for the final leg of racing at the Punchestown Festival on Saturday have been made this morning, with seven horses standing their ground for the Coolmore NH Sires Mogul Irish EBF Mares’ Champion Hurdle and eight going to post for the Ballymore Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle on Ballymore Festival Family Day.
Willie Mullins appears to hold all the aces in the Ballymore Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle on the day in which he will be crowned champion trainer for the 17th time and it is no surprise to see Paul Townend, who will be earning a sixth champion jockey gong, maintaining his partnership with Triumph Hurdle winner Lossiemouth.
Danny Mullins has ridden Gala Marceau in all her runs, including when claiming her stablemate’s scalp in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival, having chased her home on her Irish debut prior to that also at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day.
Lossiemouth did not enjoy a clear run when suffering her only defeat in February and made it 2-1 in her favour at Cheltenham, despite racing very keenly, with Gala Marceau coming home very strongly to be second. The resumption of the rivalry is sure to contribute to another thriller on Saturday.
The Mullins team is concluded by Zarak The Brave (Daryl Jacob), in receipt of a positive bulletin from Mullins returning to the track after almost a five-month absence, and the Brian Hayes-ridden Cinsa, while Joseph O’Brien saddles Adonis Hurdle victor Nusret, who finished third in the Grade 1 juvenile hurdle at Aintree two weeks ago.
“We haven’t missed much with Lossiemouth this season,” said Mullins. “Christmas, Dublin Racing Festival, Cheltenham. That’s a lot on a filly and she’s not the biggest filly in the world but she has a huge constitution so hopefully, we ask for just one more day. There’s no reason to say that she won’t give it. She’s just so laidback, I don’t think racing or anything fazes her or takes too much out of her. She’s really top class.
“Gala Marceau will definitely go and has been very good too. I think Zarak The Brave is a nice type. He showed a lot and then got a colic during the season and we had to put him to one side. But he’s a horse to keep an eye on.”
Mullins has Echoes In Rain contending in the Coolmore NH Sires Mogul Irish EBF Mares’ Champion Hurdle and her rating of 150 would put her right in the mix. However, the 2021 festival winner, who kept Honeysuckle honest in last year’s Paddy Power Champion Hurdle, can be very keen when stretching from two to two and a half miles, invariably compromising her ability to see out the trip as a result.
Townend will aim to use all his experience to get the Barnane Stud-owned mare to settle with the sometimes eccentric Brandy Love (Patrick Mullins) and Shewearsitwell (Danny Mullins) also participating for Team Closutton.
There is a strong English challenge, however, from trainers that know what it is to win at Punchestown. Epatante returns after finishing third in this race to Marie’s Rock 12 months ago but the JP McManus-owned, Nicky Henderson-trained former Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winner has to put two below-par efforts behind her if she is to contend.
Like Henderson, Harry Fry knows what it’s like to top the podium at the Punchestown Festival and Love Envoi is the highest-rated mare in the contest, now at 152 after making Honeysuckle dig deep to get past her in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. The seven-year-old has been handled masterfully by Fry and is a winner of eight of her ten races under Rules as well as her sole point-to-point when prepared by Seán Doyle in Ireland. With regular rider Johnny Burke injured, the master of judging pace fractions from the front, Danny Mullins picks up the plum spare.
Queen’s Brook is another notable contender. A course and distance winner in February, Gordon Elliott’s Bective Stud-owned mare was third at Cheltenham.
“She’s been great since Cheltenham,” said Elliott. “She’s had a good season and ran a terrific race at Cheltenham in a top-class edition of the race. She’s in great order and we’re looking forward to running her.”
Mullins acknowledges that his two leading representatives might have questions to answer.
“Echoes In Rain could be a difficult ride over two and a half miles but ratings-wise, she would look the one for that, with Love Envoi the biggest challenge,” said Mullins. “Brandy Love would probably prefer to go left-handed but I think she’ll improve a good bit on her Cheltenham run.”