A feature race at this year’s Punchestown Festival having three Willie Mullins trained horses in it is becoming a familiar theme, and it’s the case once again for the Grade 1 Champion Stayers Hurdle over 3m on Thursday (17:30).
Preference of the Closutton trio is the top rated Bapaume who, in the absence of some of the leading staying hurdlers, looks to have the best form.
This improving Rich and Susannah Ricci owned six-year-old has officially 4lb and upwards in hand on his nine opponents and, although only fifth in this 12 months ago, has posted better efforts since.
Bapaume won the Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle as a juvenile at this meeting two years ago and has run some very solid races in defeat this season.
While he was well-beaten by Apple’s Jade in both the Hatton’s Grace over 2m 4f and the Christmas Hurdle at this trip, this son of Turtle Bowl has nothing to fear from those in-behind him who re-oppose.
He was then a gallant 1 1/4 lengths runner-up to dual Galmoy Hurdle hero Presenting Percy at Gowran Park.
In chasing home this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite, Bapaume reversed Leopardstown form with stable companion Limini.
Although only an eight-length fourth to the thriving Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle last time out, this is a far weaker Grade 1 than that Cheltenham Festival contest.
With big names not running here, it gives Bapaume every chance of big race success.
A few that trailed in behind him at Cheltenham will fancy they can do better here but, at 2/1 with Coral, he arguably looks the most likely winner if repeating his last two runs.
Killultagh Vic and Bacardys both have point to prove
The other Mullins mounts here are Killultagh Vic and Bacardys. Taking the Galmoy Hurdle form literally, the former has the least – just a head – to find on Bapaume, but is not the most fluent jumper under pressure.
Go back four years and Killultagh Vic defeated the once mighty Thistlecrack over course and distance as a novice. This 10-year-old has only won three races since, however, and had more than his fair share of problems.
Killultagh Vic spent 714 days off the track after injuries put paid to his novice chase campaign and, although he made a winning return to action over hurdles, things have seldom gone right since.
He simply makes too many mistakes whether it’s the smaller obstacles or fences, so what about Bacardys? Again, he hasn’t been the most straightforward either.
The eight-year-old has twice finished behind Bapaume when a tailed off 10th in this 12 months ago and sixth in the Cheltenham Stayers’ Hurdle in March. Bacardys has almost 15 lengths to find to reverse that latter form.
It looks a huge ask and, while he also scored at the 2017 Punchestown Festival, he has it all to prove if he’s to end that two-year winless run. Bacardys is 7/1 with Betfred to do just that though.
Two chasing campaigns plotted by Mullins have been unsuccessful for him, so Bacardys has more to find than the 5lb difference on official hurdle ratings with Bapaume suggests.
Aux Ptits Soins a definite danger
There are three British raiders in the field of 10 and, of those, Aintree graded handicap winner Aux Ptits Soins looks the most dangerous.
Trained by Dan Skelton, the nine-year-old used to be in the care of Paul Nicholls and famously won the ultra-competitive Coral Cup on UK debut at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.
Like Bacardys and Killultagh Vic, Aux Ptits Soins has not been the easiest to train and spent 601 days out of action after failing to sparkle over fences.
He came on for his return to action at Newbury when winning a class 2 handicap at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
The old magic was still there and Aux Ptits Soins scored by seven lengths before stepping back into graded company for the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials Day.
Although only seventh to Paisley Park, he was less than seven lengths behind Cheltenham Stayers’ runner-up Sam Spinner.
Aux Ptits Soins has also come out and scored in a Grade 3 staying handicap at the Aintree Grand National Festival.
He stayed on well for a 4 1/2 lengths victory on Merseyside and the assessor has put him up 8lb for that success.
It actually makes Aux Ptits Soins the second highest rated in this field and so he commands respect at 4/1 with Unibet, if living up to his new mark.
Harry Fry trained veteran Unowhatimeanharry landed the spoils here two years ago, but does not look the force of old. Age is catching up with the JP McManus owned runner.
Unowhatimeanharry reportedly broke a blood vessel when eighth to Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle and was even further down the field in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree.
Vision Des Flos interesting up in trip
Yet another 2017 Punchestown Festival winner Vision Des Flos runs here and tackles 3m for the first time.
Trained by Colin Tizzard, this six-year-old landed the valuable Goffs Land Rover Bumper while still in the care of Robert Tyner two years ago.
Vision Des Flos had wind surgery halfway through an admittedly busy campaign, but the form of his Grade 2 victory in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell has been franked.
That came when runner-up If The Cap Fits stepped up for his first try at 3m and landed the aforementioned Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle.
Although only two from 14 over hurdles, Vision Des Flos is of interest in this stamina test because he once chased home Paisley Park.
Given the improvement some of the horses that have beaten him demonstrated when upped to this distance, it makes him a fascinating contender at 10/1 with Boylesports here.
Tom Scudamore gets the leg up on Vision Des Flos as Robbie Power rides Not Many Left for his own stable. This Jessica Harrington trained six-year-old has most to find on official figures, but is still unexposed at the trip.
Not Many Left landed a Huntingdon Pertemps qualifier back in January and was a fine third in the Final of that series at the Cheltenham Festival. The runner-up Tobefair has since come out and franked the form by winning.
This obviously demands more, but is weak for a Grade 1 race. Not Many Left was also hampered at a key stage when runner-up to Rashaan in the Irish Strawberry Hurdle at Fairyhouse over Easter.
He ran on again in the Grade 2 event over 2m 4f to snatch second, so there looks to more to come from Not Many Left now back to this trip.
Gigginstown and Elliott trio not tempting
Gordon Elliott and major backers Gigginstown House Stud have three engaged, but all have plenty to find on all known form.
Cracking Smart is a course winner, but was way behind Bapaume on reappearance in the Christmas Hurdle.
While the seven-year-old did finish a fine third to dual Grand National hero and stable companion Tiger Roll in the 2m 5f Boyne Hurdle, he was down the field in the Coral Cup last time out.
So were Killultagh Vic and Vision Des Flos, and that means he could take a step forward. Improving past the latter who is untried over this distance is possible, because Cracking Smart won a Listed event at the trip on his second hurdle start at Cork.
Dortmund Park, meanwhile, looks to need a softer surface to be seen to best effect after twice being thrashed by Apple’s Jade on good going earlier in the season.
This six-year-old did win impressively at the meeting 12 months ago when bolting up by 10 lengths in a novice Grade 1 over 2m 4f.
Connections will hope returning Dortmund Park to the scene of his greatest triumph will see him shape better.
Prince Of Scars completes the field but is another who has had problems. The nine-year-old spent 683 days on the sidelines and is entitled to strip fitter for his return to action when beaten 25 lengths in the Galmoy.
Although relatively lightly-raced for his age, Prince Of Scars is another whose best form is on soft and heavy going.
The progress he demonstrated when winning his first three starts for Elliott, including the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle in 2015, is a long time ago now.
OpenOdds’ Champion Stayers Hurdle shortlist
Aux Ptits Soins ✮✮✮✮✰
Vision Des Flos ✮✮✮✰✰