Sad passing of the best part of winter

A bit before my time, a publican down the road in Clonee, Mrs O’Dwyer, or Dwyer as I always heard her called, maintained that All Ireland football final day was the last big day’s trade in the area prior to Christmas. That’s changed to some extent now, as the courageous and welcome decision of Dunboyne Motor Club to revive the historic link between the area and fast cars has been handsomely vindicated.

The first Saturday in May now stands as a similarly unfortunate landmark. For it heralds the sad passing of the best part of winter. Therapy, entertainment, profitability and captivation are all adjectives which can be justifiably affixed to the National Hunt racing season, and it regularly ends with a deafening crescendo at Punchestown.

All sports – and maybe everything in life – need plenty of publicity in order to make them successful. Were the heart to rule the head, however, gut feeling would be to feel that the venue which hosts the most important race run here – the Irish Grand National – should be regarded as the home of NH racing here. It is my version of Cheltenham.

At this juncture it is of the utmost necessity to convey that the above feelings are in no way meant as a degradation of the Kildare track. Punchestown and Thomond Park and Fairyhouse figure prominently among my favourite sporting venues in the  world. Unsurprising, given their comfort, manageability and the quality of fare that tends to ensue thence.

Yet, the likes of the Punchestown Festival tends to be most enjoyable from the office. A contradiction there admittedly but some will understand. Now, forests worth of paper have already gone into articulating the superiority currently being enjoyed by Willie Mullins. Another significant acreage into hopeful yet futile suggestions as to how to curb same.

Sherwood Forest may yet come under threat. Robin Hood may be running for cover. Richard Hughes, making reference to his impending training career, in his Racing Post column, tellingly observed that, in that sphere, it is indeed all about the numbers. Even allowing for that wholly valid observation, a member of MENSA might struggle to calculate the enormity of what Mullins has achieved in recent times.

After partnering Killultagh Vic to win a top novice hurdle, Paul Townend stated “(Some of) these horses are only considered second string because Ruby isn’t riding them. They’d be first string anywhere else”. A glowing endorsement of the quality that’s seemingly ever present in Closutton and a sobering illustration of the magnitude of the edifice facing the rest of Irish jump racing.

It’s not now inconceivable that the perennial standard setter could dominate every division (again, you might say) next season. Think of horses such as Douvan and Bellshill and Nichols Canyon and the aforementioned Killultagh Vic, all taking the next step up in their respective burgeoning careers. Then factor in their more established neighbours like Faugheen, Vautour, Annie Power, Djakadam, Don Poli, Valseur Lido (I could go on here) and the mind really begins to boggle.

Perhaps, however, his greatest achievement during another stellar, record breaking week, lay away from the glitz and the glamour. I’ve always had a great love for the cross country races. Going back to when Enda Bolger was riding in them himself. And, more recently, owing to the Limerick master’s near farming of the contests.

Largely in the beginning with JT McNamara and lovable old Spot Thedifference and then in more recent times courtesy of Nina Carberry and myriad different horses. The combination again dominated over the famed banks course thanks to Wish Ye Didn’t and Josies Orders. How poignantly fitting that was, too.

Still, maybe inevitably, Mullins found a way to steal even their thunder. So doing by having the admirable Uncle Junior primed to strike in one of the marathons at 14 years young. One only needed to see what it meant to owner Luke McMahon to justify the merit of contests which are as divisive among racing aficionados as Roy Keane is to football. Old ‘Spot’ was 15 before he succumbed – though it was hardly thus – to life in Martinstown. Sandy Lane of the equine world. Thankfully for the racing romantics, Junior doesn’t appear to be going anywhere yet.

Such tends to be the cacophony of wondrous happenings throughout Punchestown that enough copy could be filed without given any due recognition to the moments which made it another memorable jumps season.

Were it necessary to narrow it down to a few, on a personal level, I would plump for the victory of Road To Riches in the Galway Plate, the re-emergence of the Dreaper team – though such an institution could never be allowed into obscurity – thanks to Goonyella’s garnering of the Midlands National – and main other promise laden performances. Finally, the joy Mydor has brought so many. More of that is surely to come.

The big show way out west won’t be long coming around. For that, Blood Cotil is the first one in the notebook.


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