Our expert takes a look at the field of top class novices contesting the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle on the first day of the Punchestown Festival and provides readers with an expert tip.
Just like the Cheltenham Festival, the festivities at Punchestown get off to a thrilling start on Tuesday afternoon, as some of the best novice hurdlers in the business take to the track in the first Grade 1 contest of the 2017 Punchestown Festival. Dawn Run secured the crown in the fourth renewal of the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle back in 1983 and since then, the likes of Moscow Flyer, Hurricane Fly, Jezki, Faugheen and Douvan have added their names to this illustrious roll of honour.
Willie Mullins has won this title four times in the last eight years and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up, Melon
(11/8 William Hill
headlines the talented trio of contenders the County Carlow maestro is sending to this feature Grade 1. Melon had only appeared once before travelling to Cheltenham – yet, he was still the firm favourite to take that prestigious title. Despite a few notable jumping errors, Mullins will have been pleased with his charges efforts and if it wasn’t for the powerful finish from Labaik
(9/4 William Hill
), he would be aiming for a second Grade 1 title here at Punchestown.
Bunk Off Early
(15/2 William Hill
) was expected to challenge for the Supreme title at Cheltenham, but he put in a messy round of jumping and as the pace quickened coming into the home straight, he fell alarmingly back through the pack. Many expected Mullins to step his five-year-old up to two-and-a-half miles here at Punchestown, seeing as his most eye-catching performance of the season came in the 18 furlong Deloitte Hurdle, but this remains his only Festival entry and he has to be considered a strong contender.
The mystery that is Labaik took another unexpected turn at Cheltenham, when he and Jack Kennedy scythed through the Supreme pack to land a Grade 1 title for Gordon Elliott. His trainer has intimated during the build-up to Punchestown that he could head to the Champion Hurdle, instead of another outing in novice company, but after Ireland’s leading trainer confirmed Jack Kennedy will take the ride again over the weekend, it looks like he has changed his mind and Labaik will tackle is fellow novices once again.
Pingshou leaving The Unit, High Secret and Moon Racer trailing in his wake in the Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree.
River Wylde ran really well to come home third in the Supreme and Nicky Henderson's charge was highly fancied to build on that performance with a win in the Top Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival. However, Pingshou
(13/2 William Hill
) took on the field from the front and none of his highly-rated rivals could lay a hoof on him as he and Robbie Power landed another huge Graded title for Colin Tizzard and the Potts team. Tizzard looks set to send his charge on a mission to bring the Herald Champion Novice trophy with him back to Dorset, but for him to triumph on foreign soil against this quality of opponent would be a huge ask.
Peter The Mayo Man
(16/1 William Hill
) has won many admirers this season and there is no doubting he has the scope to make an excellent chaser over the next few seasons. He has won on three of his five starts in two mile hurdling contests this season, but recent defeats in good quality contests mean this could be a bridge too far for Neil Mulholland’s progressive seven-year-old.
(16/1 William Hill
) looks set to mix it with the boys once again, after beating Joey Sasa by eight lengths to win a Grade 2 title in mixed-sex company at Naas in February. She's really struggled in Grade 1 company, with her Cheltenham Festival adventure ending in an eighth place finish in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle, so she too could be in danger of being outclassed.
(12/1 William Hill
) also struggled for rhythm at Cheltenham and eventually crossed the line fifth, but he's won once and finished second on his other outing here at Punchestown and could represent each-way value at his current price. However, with just seven runners confirmed in the field, there will only be two places up for grabs, so heading back to the head of the betting may be the best plan of attack.
Labaik's connections had insisted all season that if he sorted out his starting, he was capable of winning any race. The stats prove just that and after his stunning triumph at Cheltenham, Gordon Elliott's charge will have an excellent chance of landing a second Grade 1 title in a row. There were a few doubts and question marks surrounding MELON in the build-up to Cheltenham and even though he didn’t quite manage to claim that huge title, he proved he is a Grade 1 champion in the making and he will have the perfect opportunity to gain a modicum of revenge for his Supreme defeat by turning the tables on Labaik and landing his maiden Grade 1 title.25/4/2017 4:20pm Punchestown Herald Champion Novice Hurdle selection - MELON (11/8 William Hill)