Though serving its traditional role as both the final fling of the jumps season and a test of the new order established at Cheltenham last month, the Punchestown Festival must this week absorb one or two challenging incongruities.
For one thing, the Irish had such a chastening time at Cheltenham that Sir Des Champs opens the meeting today under an unusual burden of expectation. But he will also do so in conditions that could scarcely be more remote from those typically expected here. The going is already heavy in places, with more rain forecast.
So while the competition may not in itself seem to menace the unbeaten record of Sir Des Champs in the Growise Champion Novice Chase, the ground certainly might. He has looked at home in soft ground over shorter distances, but this race takes him into half a mile of new territory – and so promises an instructive test of the stamina he will require if he is to live up to his billing as the great green hope for the Gold Cup next season.
The French import has certainly looked the part in his first two visits to Cheltenham, winning the Coral Cup last year – from what had seemed an impossible position – and deeply impressive in the Jewson Novices' Chase this time round. He jumped and travelled with gusto and the way he came bounding up the hill reinforced impressions that he might prove better still over this kind of trip. Sir Des Champs is already as short as 4-1 for the Gold Cup in places and it will be a huge disappointment if he cannot outclass just four rivals today. For he leads a crop of novices, including Flemenstar and Last Instalment, that already promises a stronger Irish presence next year than in many a recent Gold Cup.
Two who have between them untiringly kept the tricolour flying at shorter distances square up yet again in the Boylesports Champion Chase. Their last two meetings, however, make it hard to resist the impression that only one remains in his prime. Sizing Europe went down with all guns blazing in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, whereas Big Zeb again shaped as though he might have lost the zip that enabled him to reverse Cheltenham form with his old rival in this race last year. The fitting of cheekpieces seems something of a last resort.
Even as it stands, the way Finian's Rainbow has since followed up at Aintree makes Sizing Europe's effort against him look rock solid – quite apart from connections' suspicion that things conspired against him on the day, left in front early and then losing momentum in their enforced diversion round the last fence. He is a very short price, however, so those seeking an each-way alternative should consider Realt Dubh. A classy novice last season, he remains fresh after a delayed comeback at Cheltenham and handles the ground.
All in all, this looks a very hazardous card for punters. Its third Grade One prize, likewise, features an odds-on favourite in bad ground at the end of a long campaign. Trifolium reached a new peak at Cheltenham, beaten only by Cinders And Ashes and a subsequent Aintree winner in Darlan, but perhaps Alderwood represents better value for the Evening Herald Novices' Hurdle. Having since followed up his County Hurdle success at Fairyhouse, he seeks a rare treble at the spring festivals – but has crucially had just three starts since September.
Main Sequence, who preserved his unbeaten record in a hot handicap at Newmarket last week, is meanwhile set for a due step up in class in the Dee Stakes at Chester next month.
Chris McGrath's Nap
My Kingdom (3.20 Wolverhampton) Exploited a dwindling handicap mark over course and distance last month and again travelled strongly when narrowly given the slip at Warwick.
Mappin Time (6.30 Southwell) Handled this surface well on his debut, as pedigree warrants, but has waited two years for another crack. Everything now looks in place.
One to watch
Friendsinlowplaces (David Barron) looked very green on debut at Ripon last week, soon off the bridle, but came home strongly for third.
Where the money's going
Camelot is 11-8 from 7-4 with Coral for the Qipco 2,000 Guineas on Saturday week, while Paddy Power also laid his stablemate, Power, from 14-1 to 10-1.