There are years when the Punchestown Festival seems more epilogue than climax, but this time it has already been gilded by two of the defining performances of the jumps season. Auspiciously, moreover, the authors of both are only just embarking on their respective careers. Yesterday, in fact, the horse that raised the sport's collective pulse was one yet to jump a hurdle in public. But it is a measure of Dunguib's quality that he can stimulate so much excitement merely by dominating that arcane finishing school for young jumping prospects, the "bumper".
Irish trainers have long treated National Hunt Flat races far more earnestly than their British counterparts, but are amply vindicated by the number of champions to have begun their careers in this way. And none who saw Dunguib outclass some perfectly eligible rivals for the Paddy Power Champion Bumper could question that this is the most talented bumper horse since Florida Pearl.
Dunguib's owners had received some eye-watering bids after he pulverised the opposition at Cheltenham last month, but he is now surely worth double whatever they turned down. Dunguib coasted through the field approaching the home turn and, on ground so testing that the dour Notre Pere would run away with the big steeplechase half an hour later, gambolled nine lengths clear.
Philip Fenton, his trainer, rode plenty of top horses in his day but this one is something else. "It looks like he's the real deal, all right," Fenton said. "He seems to have the whole package. He was in front a little sooner than we wanted, but Brian [O'Connell, Dunguib's jockey] said he took him there with huge ease. He travels so well on the bridle, but when you do squeeze him up, there's a reserve. By God, he picks up."
Dunguib has apparently schooled very competently already, and Fenton indicated that he would not be over-raced in his first season over hurdles. He is as short as 3-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle back at Cheltenham next year.
As for Notre Pere, he predictably outstayed his rivals for the Guinness Gold Cup after further deluges overnight. After that runaway Welsh National success, he had been caught flat-footed by Neptune Collonges at Leopardstown, but here he was able to pound clear from a long way out. Imperial Commander closed nicely but that effort soon told and he was eventually pulled up, exhausted, leaving Scotsirish to follow the favourite home, beaten 13 lengths.
In the right conditions, Notre Pere has developed into a formidable galloper for Jim Dreaper. "He'd have a good chance in a heavy-ground Gold Cup," the trainer said. "But he's rated 163, and needs to be in the 170s to beat the Kauto Stars and Denmans."
Notre Pere has had a shred of birch snagged in his leg since Chepstow, traced during investigation of the inflammations that interrupted his training schedule in January and March. "It's going to be removed on Tuesday," Dreaper explained. "Everything was bang on today, and the ground came for him."
The most interesting race of the third day is the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle, bringing together two horses that once left Cheltenham with the world at their feet. For a long time, Nicanor was celebrated as the only horse to have beaten Denman, but disappeared for nearly three years before resurfacing in February. He retains plenty of ability, but faces a formidable opponent in Fiveforthree, himself a winner at Cheltenham in the meantime. He, too, has had problems, off the track until March, but reached a new peak when thwarted only by Solwhit in one of the best races ever run over hurdles at Aintree. Both horses are trying three miles for the first time, and on testing ground it will boil down to which has most stamina.
The other Grade One race is the Cathal Ryan Memorial Swordlestown Cup, where Forpadydeplasterer aims to confirm himself the season's leading novice over two miles.
At Ascot, an impressive reappearance from Patkai yesterday prompted bookmakers to make him favourite for the Gold Cup back at the royal meeting. But that is only because Dunguib has run his last race over level ground.