In its history and prestige, this meeting will never rival the original Festival at Cheltenham, but it still has several significant advantages. This is Cheltenham without the crush, the mess and the headlong dash towards disaster. It is an easy-going celebration of National Hunt racing, yet one at which the delight in a winning favourite or an accomplished jumper is undiminished, and when a horse is both at once, as Klairon Davis was in the big race yesterday, there is no finer place to be.
Klairon Davis is no longer the champion two-mile chaser, having finished only fourth to Martha's Son at Cheltenham, but the arrival of spring always revives his spirits and this year is no exception. Arthur Moore's runner was soon ahead and flying his fences, and for all that he was giving 10lb and more to six talented opponents, defeat was soon out of the question.
"It'll take a good one to lower his colours at Cheltenham next year," Moore said afterwards, already plotting a path towards the Queen Mother Champion Chase. "There's nothing here at Christmas, so we'll probably start off in the Tingle Creek, and then build up to Cheltenham." Forget minor diversions such as the Guineas, Derby and Arc, the next main event in the racing calendar is now just 11 months away.
The 1998 Cheltenham Festival was also on the mind of Stan Clarke, who won the Grand National with Lord Gyllene two weeks ago, and now has an excellent hurdler to look forward to as well. Midnight Legend made his name as a handicapper with a liking for Goodwood, but at the age of six - and still, importantly for his future, with his reproductive system intact - he has found a calling as one of the year's best novice hurdlers.
David Nicholson, Midnight Legend's trainer, said after his comfortable success in the Country Pride Champion Novices' Hurdle, that he had given four different sets of instructions to Richard Johnson, the colt's jockey. "I told him jump off and blitz, jump off and drop in, jump off upsides or do his own thing," Nicholson said, prompting the thought that if he ever gives up training, he could always write the comments in the Punchestown racecard.
Clarke expects Midnight Legend to pursue one more campaign over hurdles, with the Champion Hurdle the obvious aim, before retiring to become that valuable stud rarity, a jumping stallion with top-class form over obstacles.
British punters do not need to cross the sea to enjoy the Punchestown experience today, since the two most valuable races on the card have been spliced into Channel 4's coverage from Epsom. The Stanley Cooker Champion Novices' Hurdle will probably be little more than a lap of honour for Istabraq, who made a great many Irish people very happy when winning the Royal SunAlliance Hurdle at Cheltenham, though anyone looking to buy money at odds-on should ponder on what that supreme effort may have taken out of him.
The Heineken Gold Cup is far more competitive, with three British runners, Noyan, Carole's Crusader and General Pongo, among the 18-strong field. The favourite, though, is likely to be Amble Speedy, who appeared to win the Irish Grand National by the thick end of two lengths last time out, only for the photo-finish camera to prove Mudahim the victor. As the racecard might put it, he has prospects.Reuse content