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Punchestown preview - Growsie Champion Novice Steeplechase

If you've never made the trip to Punchestown for the Festival, then put it on your bucket list, it's terrific week! I've put out the call for new blood this week on the blog, and stepping up to the challenge is Peter Tierney, @soladalo with his look at probably the best contest on opening day, the Champion Novice Chase.

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The Growsie Champion Novice Steeplechase, a Grade 1 Chase with the winner taking home €49,600, is dominated by the big players in National Hunt racing from both sides of the Irish Sea.

Of the eight entries, champion trainer W.P Mullins is responsible for two, second in the trainers championship Dessie Hughes is also responsible for two entries with Gordon Elliot, Tony Martin and Tom Taaffe completing the Irish charge. Leading the English challenge is Kim Bailey.

The list of owners represented is no less illustrious, with Andrea and Graham Wylie currently holding two entries and the powerhouse Gigginstown House Stud also holding two entries. Barry Connell, Friti Hay, A N Solomons and the “Lyreen Syndicate” complete the line-up of owners attempting to take home the €49,600 prize.

At this stage it looks likely that the Wylie owned pair, Back in Focus and Boston Bob, are destined to be separated but Willie Mullins has stated that plans won’t be finalised until tomorrow. The musings at this stage seem to indicate that Boston Bob will be held onto for later in the week. The only certainty at this stage though is that whatever horse remains looks set to be sent off the bookies' favourite.

In common with many of the week’s races there are a number of horses re-opposing each other after Cheltenham with connections looking to reverse results. Tofino Bay is aiming to reverse placings with Back in Focus after being narrowly touched off in dramatic style in the National Hunt Cup in Cheltenham, under an audacious Nina Carberry ride. However Back in Focus, a son of Bob Back, is a double Cheltenham festival winner, unbeaten since taking up chasing and has had four of the main contenders here, behind him in previous steeplechases on his way to amassing €140,000 in prize money already this season. He is currently 3/1 with the bookmakers.

Still declared at this stage is his stable mate, the top rated Boston Bob. Unlucky in the 2012 Albert Bartlett hurdle, when the late Campbell Gillies caught Ruby Walsh napping and the heavily backed Irish festival “banker” of 2012 was beaten into second position. He looked to be travelling nicely in this year’s RSA before a slip up at the last ended his participation in the race. He has however been more fortunate this side of the Irish Sea. The RSA was the first time in his racing career where he failed to finish in the first three home. His worst finishing position, prior to falling in the RSA, was when he finished third on his debut here in Punchestown. There is no doubting this horse has genuine class and previous to Cheltenham he had both Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend behind him in the PJ Moriarty Memorial at the Leopardstown Christmas festival.

Dedigout had Mount Benbulben behind him in last month’s Powers Gold and Tony Martin’s charge, has five lbs. to find on official ratings and over 50 lengths if he is to challenge Back in Focus. He was a beaten favorite last time out in Fairyhouse and will be tackling three miles for the first time today.

Kim Bailey’s Harry Tropper unseated his rider last time out in Kelso but prior to that he was an impressive winner of Exeter’s Graduation Chase and also beat Jewson winner, Benefficient, in Newbury last November. With Jason Maguire in the plate it may be dangerous to write him off however this represents another step up in class.

Lyreen Legend has finished behind both Back in Focus, twice, and Boston Bob, once, already this year, albeit over shorter distances but he always shaped as if the step up to three miles would suit. The well backed Saint Des Saints gelding so proved that the step up was no problem when he finished a gallant second to Lord Windermere in the RSA. Representing the inform duo of Dessie Hughes and promising young jockey Bryan Cooper I would expect him to be involved at the business end of the race.

Barry Connell the new owner of the electrifying, runaway Triumph hurdle winner Our Conor is represented by Mount Benbulben who was a hugely promising hurdler last season. He has carried some of his potential into the chasing sphere without ever setting the world alight. This represents his first attempt at 3 miles and despite being under the tutelage of the inform Gordon Elliot and being a son of Beneficial there remains too many question marks about the trip for any of my money.

Gigginstown House Stud, the winning owner in 2012 and 2011, is also represented by Troytown winner Tofino Bay who ran a great race in this year’s National Hunt Cup and was only beaten 0.5L by Back in Focus. The step up to four miles looked to have played to his strengths as a stayer and on that basis I would expect Back in Focus to have his measure once again now dropped back to 3 miles.

Argocat was sent off a 2/5 favorite when winning in Limerick earlier in the month and Tom Taaffe’ charge has been a consistent sort since going chasing. Friti Hay’s five-year-old son of Montjeu, carrying bottom weight 11-1lbs, has plenty of scope for improvement but I imagine Tom Taaffe will find easier opportunities for him as he appears slightly out of his depth at this early stage in his career.

Assuming Boston Bob is withdrawn, BACK IN FOCUS will be a worthy favourite in this race. The, likely to shorten, 3/1 currently on offer looks generous in a race that looks sure to play to his strengths. Proven in all types of ground from heavy through to good to soft, course form, established stamina as witnessed in Cheltenham but most importantly his sheer doggedness which has seen him clinch his last two victories in dramatic style should be enough for him to see off what will no doubt be a worthy challenge from Dessie Hughes’ promising six-year-old Lyreen Legend.

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