Dunwoody steps in for Christian

RACING: The Punchestown Festival opens with an opportunity for Britain's champion jockey after Jamie Osborne is grounded again
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The Independent Online
When Margaret Cahill, the general manager of the Irish Tourist Board, first attended the Cheltenham Festival in 1989, a notion occurred to her. If British and Irish horses and punters could be brought together for a huge jamboree in the Cotswolds, then why could a similar event not be staged in her homeland?

Since 1992, Punchestown has consequently been marketed as the second Cheltenham, an arena for the horses from two nations to stage a replay. And, in recent times, animals from the home side have come out on top at Prestbury Park and the pattern has been repeated in Co Kildare.

Nakir and Thumbs Up led the travelling challenge in the feature race yesterday, the Drogheda Handicap Chase, but the finish was fought out by Strong Platinum, who overcame a monstrous 16lb rise in the weights for a previous victory and the fact that he is supposed to act on soft ground like a unicycle, and How's The Boss. The winner, who will run again at the meeting tomorrow when taking on Cheltenham's Arkle Trophy winner Klairon Davis, is already pencilled in for the other "Festival" and an assault on the Queen Mother Champion Chase next March.

Nakir's effort ended with a slithering fall, the first of his life. The casualty rate of his jockey, Jamie Osborne, is not as healthy. He broke his nose recently at Fairyhouse and took the rest of the day off after yesterday's tumble, his face having the complexion of rhubarb and custard. He is expected to resume this afternoon.

Osborne's mood would not have been improved when Simon Christian's Camitrov, a horse he should have ridden, won the novice chase in the hands of Richard Dunwoody. Christian himself had hardly been skipping around when Nakir, and his own decent bet, went down, but his view of life, and Punchestown was quickly improved.

"This is already a great Festival," he said. "If you get the right money and the right races you're going to get a decent Festival. The atmosphere is good, as it always is when you come racing in Ireland."

Hotel Minella, who gave Charlie Swan his first winner for 10 days when justifying favouritism in style against Dunwoody's mount, Blazing Spectacle, in the Champion Novice Hurdle, is another who will have the laurels pulled away from around his head pretty smartly. The gelding, who beat among others the Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner, Tourist Attraction, yesterday, is to be returned to the fray immediately this afternoon in the Downshire Hurdle.

The phrase small but select may have been originated with this contest in mind, as among the other three runners are Fortune and Fame, who was fourth to Alderbrook in the Champion Hurdle, and Boro Eight, runner-up to Danoli at Liverpool.

Another Cheltenham horse, Treble Bob, who was a heavily backed third to Putty Road in the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, will attempt to step up from the Festival, but the most captivating race is the Heineken Gold Cup, in which the British have two challengers. They are ANC Express and Front Line, who qualifies as British only because that is where he breathes his air. The gelding is owned and trained by Irishmen, J P McManus and Jonjo O'Neill.

Eyes, however, will not be on them but directed rather at Harcon, who lost his unbeaten record to Brief Gale at the Festival. When this massive horse retires from racing, he will be able to get a job pulling a brewery dray, but for now his task is to repeat the victory of his stablemate Merry Gale in this race 12 months ago.

Just as Merry Gale then, Harcon has inherited the title of the new Arkle, but while he has yet to inhabit the same competitive realm as the great horse, he at least has the same digs, as he is stationed in the same box at Greenogue, which once housed "himself".