All you need to know as star chasers Djakadam and Sizing John face off
John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase (Grade 1) | 2m4f | 5yo+ | ATR
Djakadam, winner of the race for the last two years, will be attempting to become the first three-time winner of the Grade 1 John Durkan and is fancied to succeed.
Willie Mullins' eight-year-old has finished in the money many times in Grade 1 races over three miles and further, but his only top-level victories have come in the John Durkan, in which he has made successful reappearances in the last two seasons.
Bookmakers have priced up Djakadam as the 11-8 joint favourite with Sizing John. The pair last clashed in the Punchestown Gold Cup at the festival meeting in April, when Djakadam lost out by a short head in a rousing finish – that also featured Coneygree – when trying to foil Sizing John of his history-making Gold Cup treble.
Just 1lb inferior to Sizing John on official ratings, Djakadam will be bidding to give Paul Townend a first win in the race.
Mullins said on Saturday: “Djakadam worked and schooled well during the week and, as the John Durkan is the race he started his campaign in last year and the year before, we decided to give him his chance of completing a hat-trick in the race.
"The evidence shows that he handles Punchestown well. We’re happy with him but, with Sizing John in the line-up, it looks a strong renewal and it'll be a tough task for him.”
Mullins is also represented by this year’s Galway Plate runner-up Shaneshill, of whom he said: “It’s difficult to see him winning but if one or both of the big two don’t fire on the day, you’d never know.
"He’s in good form and we’re hoping to pick up some prize-money.”
Djakadam pros Punchestown suits him well and has won the last two runnings of the John Durkan on his first start of the season
Djakadam con Although only just touched off by Sizing John the last time they met, that rival may have more scope for improvement
Horse of the year returns
Winner of the Horse of the Year category at the Horse Racing Ireland 2017 awards during the week, Sizing John makes his reappearance in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at the track where he clinched an unprecedented Gold Cup treble in April.
Having won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Jessica Harrington-trained seven-year-old got the better of Djakadam by a short head in the Punchestown Gold Cup, with Coneygree a close-up third.
Sizing John's triumph at the Cheltenham Festival was the highlight of Ann and Alan Potts' time as racehorse owners, and this will be Sizing John's first run since the death of the couple, with Ann predeceasing her husband, who died last month.
Ruled out of the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month because of heavy ground, Sizing John has performed well in high-class races over a variety of distances and trainer Jessica Harrington said on Saturday: "In hindsight, we made the right decision not to go to Haydock as it would've been a gruelling test for him first time out.
"By missing the Betfair Chase we've had an extra two weeks with him for this race. We were preparing him for Haydock, so he should be fit enough. The trip should be fine for him, although he'd prefer better ground."
Sizing John is the shortest-priced Irish-trained horse in the market for the 32Red King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, and both he and Djakadam have that option, with Sunday's clash likely to give connections a better idea of whether Kempton is the right call.
Pros Enjoyed an excellent campaign last season and has shown himself effective over different distances
Cons Lack of a recent run, and ground more in favour of main rival Djakadam
Shorter trip set to test Carlingford
Five-time Grade 1 winner Carlingford Lough has twice landed top-level events at Punchestown, albeit over longer distances.
However, the 11-year-old has not hit the jackpot since landing the Punchestown Gold Cup in April 2016.
Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: "We didn't learn a lot from his run at Down Royal last month as he only got as far as the seventh fence.
"He's not getting any younger but John [Kiely, trainer] is happy with him. The trip will be on the short side for him and we're just hoping he runs well and that he'll improve when he goes back up in distance at Christmas."
Lieutenant back again
Sub Lieutenant, third in the race a year ago, represents Henry de Bromhead and, at a general 8-1, is the contender rated most likely to take advantage if the big two fail to fire.
The trainer said: "He's in good form and maybe dropping back in trip will suit."
Gordon Elliott, successful in the race with Don Cossack in 2014, runs A Toi Phil, owned, like Sub Lieutenant, by Gigginstown House Stud.
"He's in good form but it's a Grade 1 and he looks to be up against it," admitted Elliott.