Punchestown host five days of the best jumping action of the season this week and Tony Keenan has previewed the meeting along with the big Elliott-Mullins clash...
"The value however might be the late addition Identity Thief who was a revelation upped in trip for the first time at Liverpool, beating Wholestone by the same distance as Penhill had at Cheltenham, and he is officially rated the same was the market leader on 165."
Punchestown 2018 has the potential to be great. Sometimes an afterthought - at least when compared to Cheltenham - this year's meeting is set to host the culmination of an epic rivalry in a sport when domination is more common than competition.
At least for these five days it makes sense to put aside concerns about the lack of competitiveness in the overall Irish jumps scene and watch Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins slug it out with multiple runners across almost all races, a scenario that is good not only for the fan but also for the punter as they get to bet in competitive races with full each-way fields.
The Sportsbook bet 8/11 Elliott and evens Mullins for the trainers' championship at present which is a little surprising given Mullins was available at 100/30 at the start of the meeting last year and had a similar amount of ground to make up. But the market-makers have seen what unfolded in 2017 and can look at the ante-post odds on the open Grade 1 races this week, the four key contests that are worth €275,000 in total prizemoney each, and see that Mullins holds the upper hand. Still, a lead is a lead and Elliott would rather have it than not.
This has very much been Mullins' meeting over the years with his 131 winners here since 2003 dwarfing Elliott's total of 14. That said, Elliott is likely to have learned from last year and will surely have kept a few horses back that could help him win a maiden tittle.
As a betting medium, this market makes no appeal to me as I've had no feel for it all year but perhaps the angle is to oppose 'the Big Two' runners in spots they shouldn't be in, i.e. horses that are running more for the trainers' title than anything else. Remember, some of these horses will be having their fourth run at a competitive festival this year, going from Leopardstown to Cheltenham to Fairyhouse and all those races were run on slow ground so the likelihood of a number of runners being over-the-top is high.
Tuesday: Paloma Blue offers some value back on decent ground
Getabird looks short enough in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle and it is fair to question whether he achieved much more in victory at Fairyhouse than Mengli Khan and Paloma Blue did in defeat at Cheltenham. The going is currently yielding with only dry weather forecast between now and the first day which makes Paloma Blue interesting; perhaps he needs fence to reduce his keenness but he again shaped like there is a big race in him last time and this faster surface and more speed-favouring track should suit.
The Champion Chase is a tough one but suffice to say it has some boilover potential; Douvan has run once in the last 13 months and fell there while both Min and Un De Sceaux have had plenty of hard races lately.
A more appealing betting contest might be the Growise Champion Novice Chase. Monalee clearly should be favourite with the RSA form working out but many of his runs suggest he has nothing major in hand and might be better over shorter. Shattered Love is a little overpriced - she should be roughly the same odds as Al Boum Photo on their Fairyhouse run - but the most appealing one is Jury Duty at 20/1. The National Hunt Chase was never going to show him to best effect as he has plenty of speed and some of his earlier form with Shattered Love puts him right in the mix. Decent ground suits this strong travelled well and he could spring a shock being fresher than most.
Wednesday: Road To Respect solid but watch for Minella Rocco
Going right-handed is a concern with Road To Respect but it's about the only one ahead of his run in the Punchestown Gold Cup; he shaped well in the Cheltenham equivalent on ground he wouldn't have liked and is the most progressive horse in the field. He feels like a horse that could go off around [2.5].
Bellshill is a very good horse away from Cheltenham and Leopardstown but quite whether he is up to this class is questionable while Killultagh Vic's jumping remains a massive worry. Along with the favourite, the one that looks overpriced is Minella Rocco. It could be significant that connections have spurned both the Gold Cup and the Grand National in search of decent ground and he seems likely to get it here; the last time he got it he was second to Sizing John. He is relatively fresh and can go well.
Thursday: Late arrival Identity Thief can spot Mullins' trio
Willie Mullins looked to have the Champion Stayers Hurdle cornered off before Aintree with Penhill, Bacardys and Coquin Mans all holding leading claims. The value however might be the late addition Identity Thief who was a revelation upped in trip for the first time at Liverpool, beating Wholestone by the same distance as Penhill had at Cheltenham, and he is officially rated the same was the market leader on 165. I'm not sure I quite trust that mark but Identity Thief is bred for this trip and does have plenty of back-class and shouldn't be three times the price of the favourite.
Friday: Where will Samcro go?
Day Four is all about Samcro and where he will run; that is a decision that may be impacted on by what happens over the three previous days and I suspect Elliott's hand may be forced by Mullins clawing back the deficit and the Champion Hurdle could be his race. The drop in trip isn't really an issue for Samcro who has shown lots of speed in his two previous starts and he would likely go off favourite against the likes of Melon. Novices have a record of running well in this race if not winning but he could be the one to change that.
Back Paloma Blue @ [6.0] to win the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle
Back Jury Duty each-way @ 20/1 to win the Growise Champion Novice Chase (Sportsbook)
Back Road To Respect @ [3.6] and Minella Rocco @ [15.0] to win the Punchestown Gold Cup
Back Identity Thief @ [8.2] to win the Champion Stayers Hurdle