It was the news that Willie Mullins probably expected but ultimately was hoping against hope not to hear: Ruby Walsh’s recovery from a fractured leg suffered at Cheltenham has not been sufficient enough for him to travel to Ireland for this week’s Punchestown Festival.
It’s a hammer blow for Mullins’ chances of catching Gordon Elliott in the race for the Irish Trainers’ title. The nine-time winner is some €520,000 in prize money behind Elliott, who recently enjoyed another Grand National success courtesy of Tiger Roll. Mullins won a remarkable €900,000 at last year’s festival and there is in excess of €3,000,000 to play for at the five-day meeting, but the absence of Walsh will surely prove fatal to his chances.
“It is going to be fascinating and disappointing to watch in equal measure,” said Walsh, the 12-time Irish National Hunt champion jockey. He will miss out on a number of big rides at the meeting, including Douvan – who has been confirmed for this evening’s Champion Chase, Faugheen and the supremely-talented Penhill, who won the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last month.
It opens the doors for others, of course, with Paul Townend and the Mullins connection, Patrick and David, taking additional rides, but the loss of the prolific Walsh throws a huge spanner in the works for the trainer’s attempts to win a tenth successive Irish crown.
And there’s one question that punters are intrigued to know the answer of: how will Walsh’s absence affect individual races?
The Champion Chase (Tuesday, 5:30pm)
According to the bookmakers, Mullins was expected to open his Group 1 account for the festival with victory in the Champion Chase courtesy of Douvan, whose last win came a year ago at this festival.
The eight-year-old fell at Cheltenham last time out when travelling well, and after discussions it was agreed by Willie Mullins that Townend, now his frontline jockey, would take the ride on Douvan instead of stablemates Min and Un De Sceaux.
Min is an interesting horse here. He has finished second in his last pair of starts, but the first was to the magnificent Altior at Cheltenham and the second was by a neck to the impressive Politologue at Aintree. With two wins to his name at Punchestown and question marks over Douvan, it is Min who arguably holds the most appeal.
Gordon Elliott’s best hope is Doctor Phoenix, a three-time winner this term but a horse who is making a big step up in class.
Champion Stayers’ Hurdle (Thursday, 5:30pm)
Penhill remains the 7/4 favourite with the bookmakers as he attempts to do the Stayers’ Hurdle, and that’s fair enough given that Paul Townend has won on the impressive seven-year-old before.
Faugheen, one of Walsh’s favourite horses, has been declared for the Stayers’ but isn’t fancied to feature in the mix of such a high-quality renewal. A formline of 6-2-PU does little to whet the appetite.
It’s unlikely that Elliott will get a look in here either, with his best undeclared hope – Apple’s Jade – likely to run in the Annie Power Mares’ Hurdle on Saturday.
Ryanair Novice Chase (Thursday, 6:30pm)
Footpad is a 1/2 favourite for this renewal, and there’s a simple reason for that: in two of his last three starts he has bested his toughest challenger here, Petit Mouchoir, by a comfortable margin.
Even without Walsh on board – who guided the six-year-old to glory in the Arkle at Cheltenham, Footpad is expected to glide to another victory for Mullins this week.
Champion Hurdle (Friday, 5:30pm)
An interesting favourite here is Melon, who showed plenty of promise under Ruby Walsh’s guidance but who is now without a win in three with Townend and David Mullins on board.
More intriguing is Samcro (2/1), the outstanding six-year-old who Elliott has confirmed may take on his older rivals here. “I’d lean in favour of the novice – I think that’s the race for him – but I wouldn’t rule out having a pop at the Champion if Buveur D’Air doesn’t show up and Gordon needs the help,” said owner Michael O’Leary, referring to Elliott’s pursuit of the Irish trainer title.
It is expected that Buveur D’Air won’t make the trip after missing out at the Grand National Festival with breathing issues.