John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, Punchestown 1:50pm, Sunday December 8th
One of the strongest fields in recent memory is set to line up at Punchestown on Sunday for the twenty-second running of the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
Won by superstar chasers such as Florida Pearl (2001), Beef Or Salmon (2003), Kicking King (2004), Don Cossack (2014) and Sizing John (2017), last year’s winner Min is among a field of nine and set to defend his crown on his seasonal reappearance for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend, who last rode him in a race in April 2018.
Much has changed since we last saw Min running four lengths behind Un De Sceaux to pick up a silver medal in the Champion Chase at Punchestown in April, most notably, of course, the retirement of loyal jockey Ruby Walsh.
Master-trainer Willie Mullins – who has won the race four times in the last six years, and five times in total – once again looks to hold the key to this year’s John Durkan with the Carlow trainer holding three other entries, in the form of last season’s Arkle hero, Duc Des Genievres, recent Down Royal Grade 2 winner Real Steel, and last season’s Grade 1 Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase scorer Voix Du Reve.
Sunday’s race also sees 2017 and 2018 Cheltenham Festival winner Presenting Percy make his eagerly-anticipated reappearance for Galway handler Patrick Kelly, with Grand National hero Davy Russell set to continue aboard the 8-year-old he scored big race wins on at the likes of Cheltenham, Gowran & Fairyhouse.
A slipped saddle, of course, saw Presenting Percy’s chances in the Gold Cup ended back in March, with the gelding also found to be lame post race, with last season’s unusually dry winter restricting him to just one run over hurdles prior to Cheltenham. However, schooling is reported to have gone well ahead of Sunday’s return with many still considering the dual-Cheltenham festival hero a contender for the 2020 Gold Cup.
However, as popular a winner as Presenting Percy would be in Kildare on Sunday, it looks extremely difficult to oppose the 4-time Grade 1 scorer Min, who is as short as 4/5 to make it back-to-back wins in the race. He hammered Paul Nicholls’ Politologue by 20 lengths just two starts back and that rival has since gone on to be beaten just one-and-a-quarter lengths by Defi Du Seuil in the Grade 2 Shloer chase at Cheltenham just last month. Defi Du Seuil also landed Saturday’s Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown so the form is top-class.
Presenting Percy aside, the biggest threat to Min’s supremacy may come from stable-mate Real Steel, who romped home by 14 lengths over a similar trip on soft ground in the Grade 2 Daily Mirror Chase at Down Royal last time out. Needing to overturn a five-and-a-half length defeat by Voix Du Reve at Fairyhouse in April, that stable-mate failed to kick on from that win in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase in May while Real Steel arrives here race fit and in form, albeit scoring at a lower level last time.
That said, Gordon Elliott’s Shattered Love was beaten just one-and-a-half lengths by Min in last year’s John Durkan and will arrive race-fit as she won a Listed chase for mares at Clonmel on November 14th.
However, given Min‘s usual tendency to go well when fresh, for me it is impossible to oppose Willie Mullins’ charge with a Mullins forecast of Min & Real Steel perhaps the best way to find some value ahead of Sunday’s big race.