It is a measure of Ireland’s current near-monopoly on the biggest stars in jump racing that the first meeting between Chacun Pour Soi and Allaho, two of the country’s best five steeplechasers on the official ratings, at the Punchestown Festival on Tuesday is some way from being the most eagerly anticipated race of the five-day meeting.
It is not even the most high-profile head-to-head on the opening day’s card. That will arrive just over an hour later, when Monkfish, a Grade One winner at Cheltenham, takes on Envoi Allen, unbeaten until his fall when odds-on at the same meeting, in the Champion Novice Chase.
In a normal year, either race would have been an enthralling centrepiece for the Festival’s first day. Both involve multiple Grade One-winners, and both are also clashes between Paul Townend and Rachael Blackmore, who will be slugging it out all week for the Irish jump jockeys’ title.
But in this most abnormal of seasons for the sport as a whole, a campaign that has often felt to the handful who are there like a silent movie playing to a near-empty cinema, Tuesday’s action simply sets the tone for a week when all but a handful of jumping’s biggest names are expected to appear.
Horse Racing Ireland lists 20 chasers with a rating of 163 or higher, including three trained in Britain. Of those, just four were not entered to run over the five days of the Festival, when the programme will include no fewer than 12 Grade One contests.
The only real disappointment heading into the meeting is the withdrawal of Minella Indo, last month’s Gold Cup winner at Cheltenham, from the field for Punchestown’s equivalent contest on Wednesday. “He just didn’t seem right when we were looking at him,” Henry de Bromhead, his trainer, said on Monday. “When we had a look, he’s bruised the sole of his foot. It’s very minor but it’s the right thing to do.”
In his absence, Al Boum Photo, third home at Cheltenham when looking to complete a Gold Cup hat-trick, is the new favourite, ahead of Clan Des Obeaux, one of the few British-trained horses that will travel across the Irish Sea this week.
Honeysuckle, the Champion Hurdle winner, will also have her first start since Cheltenham on Friday, while Bob Olinger and Flooring Porter are two more of the astonishing 23 Irish-trained winners at last month’s Festival who will have their final race of the campaign on their home turf over the course of the week.
And as if the equine stars were not enough, the nip-and-tuck struggle between Townend and Blackmore for the Irish jump jockeys’ title will be a compelling storyline throughout the week, as the Grand National’s winning jockey attempts to overcome a four-winner deficit.
Townend had what looked like an unassailable advantage in the title race in early April, but nothing can ever be taken for granted in jump racing and a leg injury at Fairyhouse on 4 April left him on the sidelines. He has since been forced to watch as Blackmore has eaten away at his lead, with a treble on Friday moving her to within striking distance of the reigning champion.
Townend needed no further incentive to accelerate his return to action this week, but will require a specially-made riding boot to take part. All the same, he starts the five-day meeting as a 1-7 chance to retain the title with Blackmore on offer at 5-1, and is a narrow favourite to win their two head-to-heads on Tuesday, aboard Chacun Pour Soi and Monkfish.
It is unusual for a single race to include most of the major storylines from an entire season, but the meeting between Monkfish and Envoi Allen comes very close.
Though both are still novices, they are two of only three horses currently quoted at single-figure odds for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup (the other one, of course, being Minella Indo). That tells the story not only of Ireland’s dominance this season, but also of the likelihood that it will extend into the seasons ahead as well.
And in addition to pitting Townend against Blackmore, it sees Willie Mullins up against De Bromhead, who took over as Envoi Allen’s trainer when Gordon Elliott’s world collapsed around him in early March after a picture emerged of the now-suspended trainer sitting on a dead horse on his gallops.
Over the last five weeks, De Bromhead has won the three biggest races at Cheltenham – the first trainer to do so – and then added a first win in the Grand National for good measure. His horses have helped propel Blackmore to global fame in little more than a month and with the jockey now within sight of another huge milestone in her career, this is no time to ease off the pressure.
The grandstands will be empty but the stage is set for Blackmore to close out the season in appropriate style.