Punchestown festival finds favour

Just 13 horses were declared yesterday for the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday, which will leave the last big chase of the National Hunt season with one of the smallest fields in its 40-year history, but if the executive at Sandown Park is wondering where all the horses have gone, they should look no further than Punchestown racecourse, on the outskirts of Dublin, where the three-day Festival meeting, Ireland's equivalent of Cheltenham, opens this afternoon.

David Nicholson and Nick Henderson are among the British trainers with representatives in Ireland today, while many, indeed most, of the host country's best chasers and hurdlers will also be appearing this week.

Nicholson has been a keen supporter of the meeting for several years - he was responsible for Billygoat Gruff, the only British-trained winner, 12 months ago - and he will again lead the raiding party this afternoon when Midnight Legend, winner of the Seagram Top Novices' Hurdle at the Grand National meeting, attempts to follow up in the Country Pride Champion Novices' Hurdle. Sharpical, runner-up to Midnight Legend at Liverpool, will re-oppose this afternoon, while Aidan O'Brien's What's The Verdict, who won a valuable race at Chepstow last month, is back on home soil and is another who should go close.

The feature event on the opening card is the BMW Handicap Chase, in which Henderson has another serious contender in Big Matt. An excellent British challenge is completed by Arctic Kinsman (Nigel Twiston-Davies) and Lord Dorcet (Alistair Charlton), but all three will need to be at their best to cope with Klairon Davis, winner of this race last year and a former champion two-miler.

How Sandown would relish such competition on Saturday, traditionally the biggest day of the year at the Esher track. Go Ballistic, the beaten favourite in the Grand National, and Inchcailloch were among the horses withdrawn from the race, even though the former put in an encouraging piece of work at John O'Shea's yard yesterday morning. "He worked fantastic," the trainer said, "but it is not worth risking him on the ground and I'd rather put him away when he is on the top of his form."

In Go Ballistic's absence, it is left to Nicholson, surely the week's busiest trainer, to provide almost a third of the five-day declarations for Saturday's race. In addition to the Gold Cup runner-up, Barton Bank, set to carry top weight, the trainer still has Banjo, Call It A Day and St Mellion Fairway in the 29-furlong event, while another trainer, Robert Alner, is responsible for three more.

Richard Dunwoody, due to partner Inchcailloch before his withdrawal, may now switch to Gordon Richards's McGregor The Third. "The owners are keen to run and it is a pounds 100,000 race, but I don't like running them from out of the handicap," Richards said. "But he is in good form and his last run [when fifth behind Lord Gyllene, the subsequent Grand National winner] doesn't look so bad now."