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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Seconds out as fight between exalted title rivals makes for a thrilling finale

Elliott leads Mullins by €521,413 heading into the Punchestown Festival
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They haven’t exactly been shadow boxing for the past 12 months but the gloves are about to come off as an epic rematch between two of the most decorated bruisers in the history of Irish jump racing comes to what promises to be an enthralling climax.

From the moment the final bell sounded on last year’s absorbing Punchestown dust-up between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, you kind of knew it would come down to this. Sure enough, they must do it all over again.

How the big two dominate the day-one runners
Two trainers, five days, 12 Grade 1s, 37 races of value and more than €3 million in prize-money – but there can be only one champion trainer.

For the past ten years Mullins has owned the belt. Elliott landed some jolting body blows last term, yet he couldn’t deliver the knockout punch.

With a lead of €521,413, he is more than €100,000 further ahead than he was this day last year, but is he any closer to a coveted first title?

He remains odds-on to cling on, and many have identified the manner of his glorious triumphs in the Grand National and its Irish equivalent as parallels for how the championship race might conclude.

General Principle and Tiger Roll withstood the late challenges from Closutton, so Elliott will as well, the theory goes.

It is a convenient analogy, but it’s worth remembering that Elliott’s current lead would not have been enough in 2017, when Mullins outscored him to the tune of nearly €600,000 across the five days.

The perennial champion is primed to come with a sustained barrage of timely combinations in the most crucial events of the week.

Discovering whether Elliott has punched himself out in the way that George Foreman did when Muhammad Ali deployed his exalted rope-a-dope tactics during the Rumble in the Jungle is going to be something to behold, as there is a no-holds-barred dynamic to this that will make for a compelling ringside spectacle.

That iconic clash in Zaire took place 44 years ago and between them Elliott and Mullins are responsible for 42 runners on the first day alone.

Big two going toe-to-toe

Just look at some of the races we will be privy to on day one as a consequence of this unadulterated rivalry.

In the BoyleSports Champion Chase, the first of the festival’s four €275,000 events, Mullins pits Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min against each other, while Doctor Phoenix is one of four Elliott contenders, after serving it up to Un De Sceaux before falling two-out at Fairyhouse three weeks ago.

Having gone unbeaten in 14 starts across three years, Douvan hasn't won since dotting up here in February 2017. As he tanked along in the Champion Chase last month he looked on mean terms with himself before capsizing at the ditch on top of the hill.

But they were a long way from home and neither his physical nor mental limits were tested. Chances are Un De Sceaux and co will test both for him now. 

Two years ago, after Douvan had devoured reopposing The Game Changer and subsequent Gold Cup phenomenon Sizing John in the two-mile novice chase here, Ruby Walsh sounded a note of caution when asked if the majestic specimen he had just dismounted might be as good a horse as he had ridden.

“He could be,” Walsh responded, “but you ride lots of top novices – it's the next step. You want them to do what Faugheen has done – step out of novice company to be a champion.”

As of yet, for all his brilliance, Douvan hasn't done it at the highest level at any of the spring festivals, and if you stopped last year’s Champion Chase at the point of his departure this time, no-one would have bet against him doing so. There’s many a slip tween cup and lip, though, so now we want to see him validate his claim to immortality.

Real depth to Grade 1 contests

Notwithstanding Altior's absence, there is real depth to this two-miler, and it’s a similar story in the other Grade 1s.

Presenting Percy is missing from the Growise Champion Novices’ Chase, but Monalee, Al Boum Photo, Shattered Love, Rathvinden, Monbeg Notorious and Finian’s Oscar all feature in a luscious line-up. While there is no Summerville Boy in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, Getabird, Mengli Khan, Paloma Blue, Sharjah and Vision Des Flos are among those poised to lock horns.

Each of the Grade 1s boasts a field of ten or more, as do Wednesday’s three 48-hour declaration showpieces. In 2017, not one of the six equivalent contests hit double figures, with aggregates of 21 on both days contrasting with a cumulative 31 on Tuesday and 34 on Wednesday.

That’s the upshot of this pugilistic trainers’ duel right there. For this week at least racing is the real winner. Seconds out.

Punchestown Tuesday card

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It’s worth remembering that Elliott’s current lead would not have been enough in 2017, when Mullins outscored him to the tune of nearly €600,000
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