Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Irish Cheltenham

The Irish Cheltenham

13 is considered to be an unlucky number for many reasons. For instance there are 13 steps on a gallows and some people are so superstitious they will not leave their house on Friday the 13th. For the Irish at Cheltenham this year, 13 was the luckiest possible number. It was the total amount of Irish winners at the festival, a new record. Irish horses won almost half of all the races at Cheltenham and many of these superstars will be on show for their season finale at Punchestown in a little over two weeks time.

Unquestionably the Punchestown Festival is the highlight of the racing calendar. Considered by many to be “The Irish Cheltenham” Punchestown is certainly not a poor relation to its English counterpart. There are no less than 11 Grade One races over the five days and the quality of racing is unrivalled in Ireland. When Hurricane Fly pipped Solwhit by a neck in the Champion Hurdle last year, it galvanised his status as a Cheltenham champion-in-waiting. Hurricane Fly makes a reappearance at the track this year, preferring it to Aintree and the break will suit him will. We are likely to see Quevega too, she stepped up to 3m to win the World Series Hurdle in 2010 and taking on the boys will be no problem this year again for this wonder mare.

Baby Run will return to the track too, he won a Champion Hunters Chase there in 2009 and has no fear of the big fences on a track that features the only cross country banks course in Ireland. One horse that will draw the crowds more than any other though will be the mighty Kauto Star. The best chaser in a generation will line up for the Guinness Gold Cup on May 4th, a race his stable mate Denman could only finish fourth in last year. It is possible that Kauto will finish his career at Punchestown. Clive Smith, Kauto Star’s owner is on record to have said "It would be a great way to round off the season if he could win in Ireland. Any decisions on his future will be made after that.” If Kauto Star wins the Guinness Gold Cup, the racecourse owners will need a new roof because the crowd will have lifted it off.
The Punchestown Festival is welcomed too with open arms by the locals around Naas. Since it was extended to five days in 2008, attendance is steadily in the region of 100,000 with 20% of this originating from overseas. The local economy benefits to the region of €50 million and the extension of the race week to include a Saturday was a very shrewd and welcome move.

Cheltenham is a left-handed track, Punchestown is right-handed. This difference though is not unique. The culture around the Punchestown festival in Ireland is on a more local, grass-roots level than in Cheltenham. 14 racecourses including Cheltenham, Aintree and Newmarket are owned by a conglomerate called the Jockey Club, the 466 acres at Punchestown are owned by The Kildare Hunt Club and not HRI. Credit must go to The Kildare Hunt Club for their flexibility and innovation in running the meeting.
As it is a mid-week meeting, the race times at Punchestown are scheduled around work times, the first race starts at 3.40pm, the last around 7.15pm which lends the opportunity for race-goers to attend without taking the full day off work. Many local schools close for racing and numerous organisations in the area adopt a laissez-faire approach to the week, including the well-documented case of Kildare County Manager receiving one privilege day to attend the Punchestown races.

The meeting receives huge local support and the interest of owners and trainers is due to the prestige and €2.2 million prize fund. This year’s Punchestown Festival has been moved back one week and will take place from Tuesday May 3rd to Saturday May 7th. Due to a late Easter, this is the first time in ten years that the meeting will be held in May.

Racing was first held in Punchestown in 1868, which was also the year of a British Royal Visit. The Queen will not be in attendance this time around but Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly and Quevega will be. Isn’t that enough royalty for anybody?

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