The Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle is the first of two Grade 1 contests to take place on the final day of the 2019 Punchestown Festival on Saturday (15:50).
A field of just five are set to go to post for the 2m 4f contest and trainer Willie Mullins saddles three. The clear pick is last year’s winner Benie Des Dieux, who is 2/7 with Ladbrokes and impossible to oppose despite those extremely cramped odds.
This ex-French trained eight-year-old started life off with Mullins by landing three straight successes over fences.
She then had her attentions switched to the smaller obstacles and came from off the pace to land the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival when beating Midnight Tour by half-a-length.
Benie Des Dieux then ran out the ready winner of this 12 months ago when staying on strongly to beat Augusta Kate by three lengths under Paul Townend – who is once again in the plate.
The daughter of Great Pretender has only had one run this season, and was set to retain her Mares’ Hurdle crown at the Cheltenham Festival when three lengths clear and looking in no danger only to come to grief at the final flight.
This is far easier and a rating of 152 gives Benie Des Dieux 7lb and upwards in hand on her rivals. Granted a clear round, this looks hers for the taking and compensation for Cheltenham awaits.
Stable companion Stormy Ireland, who finished runner-up in the aforementioned Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, looks the obvious one for the forecast.
She is a top-price 8/1 with Boylesports, but it’s hard to see her lowering the colours of a red-hot favourite.
Fakir D’oudairies fancied for juvenile glory
The other Grade 1 on a cracking card is the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle over 2m (16:25), which is far more competitive despite there only being six runners.
Fakir D’oudairies brings the strongest form into the race; so, at 11/4 with Coral, looks decent value to land the spoils.
This four-year-old won his first two starts after joining Joseph O’Brien from French trainer Guy Cherel, and was very impressive in the last of those when trouncing Fine Brunello in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham.
The son of Kapgarde then ran very well when pitched in against older horses and finishing an 11-length fourth of 15 to Klassical Dream in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Given that Klassical Dream was ultra-impressive when landing another Grade 1 at this meeting earlier in the week and is now a top-price 6/1 second-favourite for the 2020 Champion Hurdle, it gives the form a very strong look.
Fakir D’oudairies also lost little in defeat last time out at Aintree’s Grand National Festival when beaten just a neck by Triumph Hurdle hero Pentland Hills, with the pair pulling well clear of the field.
He was given an attacking ride that day by Mark Walsh, who once again does the steering, and similar tactics could make the JP McManus owned Fakir D’oudairies very hard to peg back and pass at this venue.
Fusil Raffles and French Made feared
The betting is headed by Fusil Raffles, who was impressive on making a winning start for Nicky Henderson in the Grade 2 Adonis Hurdle at Kempton back in February.
This Simon Munir and Isaac Souede owned son of Saint Des Saints tracked the leaders going well and, after taking up the running on the bridle approaching the last, quickened clear on the run-in to easily account for Beat The Judge by nine lengths.
Fusil Raffles was fancied by many for the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on the back of that very taking success, but was forced to miss the race through injury.
He now has an absence of 70 days to overcome and the form of his Kempton success has not worked out well. So, for all that he has bags of untapped potential, Fusil Raffles looks plenty short enough in the betting at 2/1 with BetVictor and worth taking on.
Given that trainer Willie Mullins has been mopping up at this meeting, his sole representative French Made commands the utmost respect.
This filly was far from disgraced when eighth of 14 to Pentland Hills in the Triumph Hurdle on just her second start, and has since shown tremendous battling qualities to beat the useful Gardens Of Babylon by half-a-length in a Grade 2 at Fairyhouse.
She is clearly going the right way and receives a handy 7lb sex allowance in this from Fakir D’oudairies and Fusil Raffles.
That makes her a big player and she can be backed at 7/2 with Paddy Power to provide Mullins with yet another Grade 1 winner.
Walk To Freedom weighted to go well in Pat Taaffe
Walk To Freedom has proven form at the track and looks on a handy mark at present, so makes plenty of appeal at 7/2 with William Hill in the 3m Palmerstown House Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase (17:00).
This Jessica Harrington trained nine-year-old won the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle at this meeting in 2015.
He also ran well here on chasing debut when a 15 1/2 lengths third of 17 to subsequent three-time Grade 1 winner Outlander, who was rated as high as 166 in his pomp.
Walk To Freedom has won twice since, with the last of those successes coming in a handicap hurdle at Navan back in November when scoring off a rating of 131. He went to to be placed in his next two starts off 138 and 139.
The son Arcadio is now able to race off 136 and comes into the contest on the back of a fine 5 1/2 lengths third of 10 to Sizing Rome at Fairyhouse.
That was his second start back from a break and should have put him spot on for this. So, with ground conditions fine and the in-form Robbie Power in the saddle, Walk To Freedom looks to have plenty going for him in a wide-open and competitive 11-runner affair.
Bellow Mome a player for red-hot Mullins
The Willie Mullins trained Bellow Mome, who can be backed at 6/1 with Betfair, comes in the contest on the back of two solid efforts and is a fascinating contender now eased in grade.
After finishing a fine third of 14 to stable companion Pairofbrowneyes in the Leinster National over 3m at Naas, he was far from disgraced when fifth of 30 to Burrows Saint, in the ultra-competitive Irish Grand National over 3m 5f at Fairyhouse off a rating of 136.
This is easier than both those assignments and Bellow Mome is able to race in it off an unchanged mark.
It gives him leading claims from a handicapping perspective – especially judged on his fourth to Yorkhill in a Grade 3 at Navan back in 2017 off an official rating of 140.