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Champions to be crowned and stars to salute as the season ends on a high

Altior and Nico de Boinville celebrate winning the Champion Chase
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Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Juliet, in a most smitten state, used those words to Romeo. All those of us who adore the sport of jump racing could say the same as we bid a fond farewell to a season that has been absorbing, inspiring and still has much to offer on a day that promises to put the most delicious icing on this campaign's cake.

From autumn into winter and now spring there has been so much to keep us spellbound. There has been brilliance and there has been bravery, the heroes being the horses and humans who become our constant companions from one season to the next.

Native River's Gold Cup was one of the highlights of the season
There has been that most gripping of Cheltenham Gold Cups, in which Native River and Richard Johnson truly were shown to be a match made in heaven.

There was the dramatic conclusion to the Grand National, won by the remarkable Tiger Roll, an athlete small in stature but vast in substance.

And on Thursday there was the wonderful renaissance of Faugheen, whose all-the-way tour de force was so satisfying to witness.

We will long remember those races and many others. Now, as we enter the final act, more memories will be made as once again the curtain comes down at two marvellous stages.

The arch-rivals slug it out once more

This is a day when champions will be crowned – and there is, one title that has been fought more furiously than any of the others, not only all season but also all week in a particularly lush part of County Kildare.

It would an understatement of huge proportions to describe the Willie Mullins-Gordon Elliott title tussle as a subplot to the Punchestown festival.

It has dominated the meeting, just as it has surely dominated the thoughts of those two incredible trainers. A major reason why we who watch have been so engrossed is that it is so obvious how much each coach wanted to head home this evening with the crown.

Willie Mullins has been in spectacular form this season

At the start of the week, Elliott, supported principally by Michael and Eddie O’Leary, held a massive lead and seemed sure to win. Yet the same was true last year only for Mullins to overhaul him and become champion for the tenth time in a row.

The same script has been followed this year. The Closutton juggernaut has been at its most powerful and, while it seemed in danger of derailment when Paul Townend’s satnav went wild on Tuesday, Mullins and his team will once again take the crown after an incredible week, highlighted by six winners on Wednesday’s card.

Willie set to break a world record

What we have in store for Punchestown part five paints a picture of Irish jumping as it is now.

Farclas (grey) keeps on strongly to beat Mr Adjudicator in the JCB Triumph Hurdle
Nine horses are due to contest the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, headed by Triumph Hurdle one-two Farclas (Elliott) and Mr Adjudicator (Mullins). The other seven horses are all stable companions of either the Cheltenham winner or second. For the third time this season, a Grade 1 race will be contested by runners representing only the country's two main yards.

In the preceding top-flight prize, headed by Benie Des Dieux and Apple's Jade, nine of the 12 mares come from the two main camps, but in the €100,000 Ballymore Handicap Hurdle Mullins in poised to have a world record 14 runners. Elliott had just the 13 in this year's Irish Grand National.

Mullins has trumped him again.

Blaklion carries top weight in Dessie's race

At Sandown, 30 years on from Desert Orchid's stirring Whitbread Gold Cup triumph, we pay homage to some headline-makers of the modern era.

Native River, Buveur D'Air and Might Bite are among those in a pre-racing parade that gives us a chance to say thank you and goodbye to a true champion of the sport, Cue Card. Like fellow Sandown visitor Sire De Grugy, who was also retired this season, Cue Card will remind us that the biggest stars in racing have four legs.

Blessed with four very fast legs is Champion Chase winner Altior, who will start at long odds-on to win the Bet365 Celebration Chase for the second year running.

There were times at Cheltenham when he appeared vulnerable, but there is not a horse in training who finishes a race more strongly than Nico de Boinville's great ally. We have seen that before at Sandown. It would be marvellous to see it again.

Far more competitive than the Celebration Chase is the 20-runner bet365 Gold Cup, whose weights are headed by Blaklion, so unlucky to be brought down at the first fence of the Grand National.

Cheltenham Festival winner Missed Approach will have his supporters, as will Regal Encore, while at bigger prices it is far from impossible the Cue Card colours of Jean Bishop could be carried to glory by Theatre Guide or Royal Vacation.

That would be something of a fairytale. Such things happen in this sport.


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There is, however, one title that has been fought more furiously than any of the others, not only all season but also all week in County Kildare
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