From a £600 purchase to Grade One glory, the rise of Skyace has been nothing short of remarkable, writes Bradley West.
The highly progressive novice has come on leaps and bounds since winning at Down Royal in October – finishing fourth at Cheltenham before winning the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival.
Plenty of nice pay days there for Cathal McHugh’s Birdinthehand syndicate who own her, and she has been championed every step of the way by the typically confident trainer Shark Hanlon.
It was Shark of course who assertively predicted Skyace’s Fairyhouse win beforehand as he bagged a first Grade One winner of his career, and now they continue their upward trajectory with their biggest challenge to date in the Mares Champion Hurdle.
Add to that some concerns about the ground and Skyace will have her work cut out – but she has upset the odds countless times before so who’s to say today will be any different?
“I think they will all have to go to beat her, but I'm worried about the ground,” Hanlon said.
“They've put plenty of water on and it will be on the soft side. It might not be as suitable as it was at Fairyhouse. The faster the ground, the better chance she has.
“Look, she's up in grade but she's in great form and I'm really looking forward to it.”
Standing ominously in her way are a trio of Willie Mullins horses.
The phrase ‘Mullins at the Punchestown Festival’ has been shorthand for dominance this week, with a mere 15 winners going his way at the season-ending showcase.
And leading his charge for yet another Grade One win here is Concertista, last season’s Mares' Novice Hurdle winner.
She fell to an uncharacteristic defeat at Cheltenham, although sets the standard in this 2m4f contest.
“Concertista looks the best of ours on paper,” Mullins said. “She was beaten in the Mares' Hurdle but a lot of ours are running a lot better this week than they did at Cheltenham.”
Meanwhile, the final Grade One race of the Festival contains an all-star cast in the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle.
Unbeaten Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios could end the remarkable campaigns of Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore on a high, but there is some stiff opposition to contend with.
Chiefly, Denise Foster’s Zanahiyr – despite a difficult day last time out in the Triumph at Cheltenham.
Add in the real unknown of the newbie, the Willie Mullins-trained Haut En Couleurs and the 80/1 Fred Winter winner Jeff Kidder and you’ve got a recipe for a really tasty battle.