Everyone knew there was going to be drama with the gripping battle for the Irish trainers’ championship but no one could have envisaged what would follow on day one of the Punchestown Festival.
In what former jockey Mick Fitzgerald described as “an absolute moment”, Paul Townend inexplicably veered dramatically right aboard Al Boum Photo and ran out with the Growise Champion Novice Chase his to lose.
Al Boum Photo looked set to become Willie Mullins’ fourth winner of the Festival when Henry de Bromhead’s favourite Monalee (2/1) parted ways with Noel Fehily at the second last but that was only the beginning of a bizarre story.
Robbie Power looked dumbfounded as Colin Tizzard’s English raider Finian’s Oscar was carried out by Townend’s mount with the Cork jockey quick to pound the Punchestown sod in frustration after an astonishing turn of events.
The parade ring is usually a place where you get answers to the questions of the day – be it winners, losers or also-rans – and plenty of opinions but everyone stood in stunned silence after an extraordinary sequence of events had ripped up the script with no explanation for what had just happened.
Not since Devon Loch inexplicably sprawled to the Aintree turf with the Grand National at his mercy in 1956 has there been such a strange chain of events in a high-profile contest and it’s sure to live long in the memory, particularly for Townend.
Eventual winner The Storyteller (16/1) was almost an afterthought as champion jockey-elect Davy Russell continued his remarkable run for Gordon Elliott but even he couldn’t believe he was first past the post given that he traded at an in-running high of 75.
“I took a quick look up and saw nothing and I suppose Paul must have spotted something. I was concentrating on my fellow and thought it was great that he was going to finish a career-best in third, and then that happened,” a shocked Russell said.
“It’s difficult for both Gordon and Willie because it’s so tight and it’s so important for both of them. It’s important for me and Jack (Kennedy) and the guys are well. It’s going to be a long week and hopefully Gordon can hang on now.”
After four races it looked the race for trainers’ crown was nearly over as Mullins had cut the lead by nearly €300,000 (€226,714 from a starting point of €521,414) as the Closutton maestro caught fire from the outset.
Un De Sceaux (9/2) brought his usual fan club to the Kildare track but not many could have predicted the jaw-dropping performance from the evergreen ten-year-old in the featured BoyleSports Champion Chase with all eyes on stable-mate Douvan (4/5 favourite).
However, like so many in the past, Un De Sceaux galloped his rivals into submission from the front to secure his ninth success at the highest grade with the trainer’s son Patrick steering him home with Townend back in second on Douvan.
“Coming past the stands I thought he was on the wrong leg, he wasn’t galloping the way he normally would and Patrick said he pinged the first down the back and he started to gallop and Patrick said, ‘I’m going to let him gallop’,” Willie Mullins said.
“Paul (Townend) probably thought that at that stage he had enough in his tank but when he moved on his fella he was disappointing.
“When Douvan had to lengthen his stride he just didn’t go but Un De Sceaux is no back number.
“To come out after Cheltenham and then Fairyhouse and then here today, anyone that was doubting him after Fairyhouse got their answer today anyway. Considering the busy week he’s had, it was a hell of a performance.”
There was further heartbreak for Townend earlier in the day aboard the hotpot Getabird (11/10 favourite) in the Grade One Herald Champion Novice Hurdle but his mount was far too keen and didn’t react well to company at the head of affairs.
As Ruby Walsh described it best commenting that “they sent their spoilers to ruin Getabird but it’s back-fired on them”.
Team Mullins had an able deputy in Draconien (25/1) – ridden by Fehily – which significantly turned the tables on his disappointing stable-mate from their Fairyhouse meeting earlier this month.
Mullins remarked: “There was no pace when he was second to Getabird at Fairyhouse, but it was a different story today. There was so much pace today that it played into his hands.
“He’s a good horse. He always was in the beginning but he just lost his way. He’ll probably go out to grass, the only other option would be to go for the Prix la Barka (in France).”
The 11-time champion trainer had earlier watched Rachael Blackmore steer the lightly-weighted True Self (12/1) to victory in the Killashee Handicap Hurdle and was full of praise for the former champion conditional rider.
“Rachael should be called a good jockey, not a lady jockey,” Mullins said before the winning rider – picking up her first Festival winner – praised Mullins’ astonishing strength in depth: “I think if you are getting your leg over one of Willie’s this week, you could be on the right one.”
George Ezra’s ‘Paradise’ rang out over the Punchestown tannoy to welcome Un De Sceaux back to the winner’s enclosure in front of 19,686 (down 504 on last year’s opening day but understandable given the adverse weather) and Mullins was in heaven.
It was the “perfect start to the week” but the tide started turning in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper.
As one scribe remarked, Elliott needed a “bounce of the ball” and certainly got that in The Storyteller while the many arrows that he threw at the Grade One stuck.
Commander Of Fleet (5/1) powered clear in impressive fashion for amateur Barry O’Neill to lead home a 1-2-3 for Cullentra and help his trainer “sleep better tonight” despite only acquiring the horse last month.
“He’s a nice horse and a big thanks goes to Pat Doyle who trained him to win a point-to-point. Michael and Eddie (O’Leary) said if he’s good enough to take to the Land Rover then take him,” Elliott said afterwards.
“I only have him from the week after he won his point-to-point. I haven’t galloped him, just cantered him away.
“Pat did all the hard work with him. He’ll be a nice horse with a summer’s grass”
The opening Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase over the famous banks course was as far removed from the trainers’ championship battle as possible and it was fitting that small-time Limerick trainer John Gleeson picked up the spoils with son Willie in the plate on outsider Just Wait And See (16/1) who finished strongest.
Describing it as the “biggest buzz of my life”, the trainer got an unforgettable day off to an unforgettable start. What followed was racing theatre at its finest and with four more days to come, who knows what twists and turns lie ahead.