Punchestown un­likely to move to a Sun­day fin­ish any­time soon

Or­gan­is­ers to look at ‘pros and mi­nuses’ as record 35,958 at­tend fi­nal day

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Brian O’Con­nor Rac­ing Cor­re­spon­dent

Punchestown au­thor­i­ties have said changes to its fes­ti­val dates are un­likely in the short term but con­ceded the “pros and mi­nuses” to mov­ing the Na­tional Hunt fes­ti­val for­ward so it can fin­ish on a Sun­day will be re­viewed.

On Satur­day an in­ci­dent-packed and record-break­ing fes­ti­val brought the jumps sea­son to a close with a mod­ern-day at­ten­dance record of 35,948. It brought the to­tal at­ten­dance for the five days to 127,489 – up 4,932 on 2017.

The re­tire­ment of the for­mer am­a­teur cham­pion jockey Nina Car­berry on Satur­day, when win­ning on her fi­nal ride, repli­cated her sis­ter-in-law Katie Walsh who did the same thing the day be­fore.

With Willie Mullins re­tain­ing the train­ers’ crown, and com­ing within less than ¤32,000 of the ¤6 mil­lion prize­money mark after a record 17 fes­ti­val win­ners yielded just over ¤1.7 mil­lion dur­ing the five days, the fes­ti­val was widely re­garded as be­ing hugely suc­cess­ful.

Even be­fore it was over, though, Ir­ish rac­ing was left with the prospect of a rare Sun­day blank after Gowran’s flat fix­ture was can­celled due to wa­ter­log­ging.

So, with Punchestown’s Ladies’ Day pro­gramme at­tract­ing over 33,000 on Fri­day – a ma­jor leap up from at­ten­dances of around the 20,000 mark on the first three days – the prospect of start­ing the fes­ti­val on Wed­nes­day and end­ing on Sun­day is set to be ex­am­ined again.

The track’s rac­ing man­ager Richie Gal­way ruled out any chance of ex­tend­ing the fes­ti­val to six days. How­ever, al­though he said mov­ing jump rac­ing’s show­piece event to in­clude the en­tire week­end is un­likely in the short term, he stressed the prospect is go­ing to be re­viewed.

“It’s some­thing we will look at. I think it’s prob­a­bly un­likely in the im­me­di­ate short term. But it’s un­der con­tin­u­ous re­view be­cause there are def­i­nitely pros and mi­nuses to it,” Gal­way said yes­ter­day.

“Hav­ing re­viewed it pre­vi­ously, we’re sat­is­fied the cur­rent mix works well across the five days. The cor­po­rate mar­ket and en­ter­tain­ment for busi­nesses ap­pears to work bet­ter on week­days rather than week­ends. But it’s some­thing we will look at again,” he added.

Best-qual­ity rac­ing

Much of the best-qual­ity rac­ing takes place in the first half of the fes­ti­val, with half of the dozen Grade One races tak­ing place in the first two days. That leaves much of the best ac­tion tak­ing place in front of the least num­ber of peo­ple.

“Tues­day to Thurs­day tends to be for sea­soned race­go­ers. Ob­vi­ously crowds of around 20,000 are not to be sniffed at, and Fri­day and Satur­day are ob­vi­ously ex­cel­lent in terms of at­ten­dances.

“If you’re a real rac­ing en­thu­si­ast that’s your ob­jec­tive for go­ing rac­ing. It’s like Royal As­cot. Those pro­grammes are strong­est too in the early days of the week,” Gal­way said.

“From a so­cial point of view, while rac­ing is the main hook, it’s only part of the hook that brings peo­ple rac­ing.

“Whether we like it or not, the fes­ti­val is two or three things. In front of the stands there’s top-class rac­ing. Be­hind the stands, to­wards the week­end, it’s start­ing to morph into a rock con­cert, a so­cial event and a hos­pi­tal­ity event.

“We’ve run con­certs for a num­ber of years in Punchestown, and the Fri­day in par­tic­u­lar has that vibe about it. A lot of peo­ple who are us­ing pub­lic trans­port or us­ing park-and-ride, they make the re­served en­clo­sure a real hub of en­ter­tain­ment that lasts after rac­ing is fin­ished,” he added.

The bat­tle for the train­ers’ cham­pi­onship, which even­tu­ally saw Mullins beat Gor­don El­liott by ¤809,524 in an as­ton­ish­ing swing of over ¤1.3 mil­lion dur­ing the week, was ex­pected to dom­i­nate the fes­ti­val.

How­ever, the re­tire­ments of Walsh and Car­berry, as well as the dra­matic day one in­ci­dent which saw for­mer cham­pion jockey Paul Tow­nend get a 21-day ban for dan­ger­ous rid­ing, also at­tracted huge at­ten­tion.

“I thought 2017 would be a hard act to fol­low but I think it did. So many stories came up. If you were writ­ing a script it would seem too far-fetched to be­lieve,” Gal­way said.

Cham­pion jockey

Davy Rus­sell was crowned cham­pion jockey for the third time in his ca­reer on Satur­day after win­ning 119 races in Ire­land worth over ¤2.6 mil­lion in prize­money. The 38-year-old was pre­vi­ously cham­pion through 2011-2013.

“I thought the day was gone when I could ride well over 100 win­ners in a sea­son. It’s thanks to Gor­don [El­liott] and all his team and the sup­port I’m after get­ting from a lot of peo­ple in­clud­ing Gig­gin­stown,” he said.

“The Grand Na­tional [Tiger Roll] is very special as I never thought I’d win one. That’s a ca­reer high­light and a dream come true. Pre­sent­ing Percy was another very good horse for me this sea­son. It’s been a great year. It starts again on Mon­day and we have to go and do it all over again!” Rus­sell added.

Rus­sell has three rides for El­liott at the first fix­ture of the 2018-19 jumps sea­son at Kil­beg­gan on Mon­day. Crezic has proved frus­trat­ing but a 117 rating for a maiden hur­dle at this time of year is hard to ar­gue with. Esh­ti­aal is Rus­sell’s mount in the Be­gin­ners’ Chase but it is Gang­ster’s 143 mark that looks the most con­vinc­ing cre­den­tial.

Rachael Black­more en­joyed three win­ners at Punchestown and she’s aboard Gang­ster who had four novice runs last sea­son. He re­turned from a year off with a spin over hur­dles last month and can go in.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MOR­GAN TREACY/INPHO

Willie Mullins: The bat­tle for the train­ers’ cham­pi­onship, saw Mullins beat Gor­don El­liott by ¤809,524 in an as­ton­ish­ing swing of over ¤1.3 mil­lion dur­ing the week.

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