Twelve months ago Irish trainers were celebrating three wins on Day 1 of the Festival. Today they had just one winner with the remarkable mare Quevega (pictured) winning at Cheltenham for the fourth year on the trot.
Galileo’s Choice trained over the Irish Sea by Dermot Weld was sent off as favourite for the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but was never a factor in the race.
Jason Maguire the rider of Cinders And Ashes – trained by Donald McCain – had been very bullish about the chances of his mount at the Haydock preview evening and we should have taken more notice of him as his mount won by 1 ¼ lengths despite hitting the fourth hurdle and more seriously the last. However, he stayed on best of all up the hill.
Trainer Donald McCain, who was celebrating his fifth Festival winner, said “This is magic – we told the boys in November to get on at 33/1. He’s a fair horse but people have tried crabbing him because he has been running on bad ground. It’s the same with Peddlers Cross – it’s just where I sent him and he is a tool.
"He half missed the last because he just got there too soon. He’s a special horse. He’s a good, hardy boy and Sinbad, my head girl, who rides him everyday, has worked her socks off.
"This makes the rest of the week easier – this horse and Peddlers Cross were the big white hopes – and he is a special horse.”
Nicky Henderson was celebrating his 40th win at The Festival – equalling the record of Fulke Walwyn as the most successful trainer at The Festival when Sprinter Sacre took the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase very comfortably, winning by 7 lengths from Cue Card. Any talk of whether or not he would stay up the hill were put to bed when he sauntered away from the field.
His Jockey Barry Geraghty after riding his 21st Festival winner said: “He’s an unbelievable horse to ride. I have said that he is the possibly best and he might be. Moscow Flyer was class but he was only beating average horses by a couple of lengths – this fellow is class. It’s just the way he does it – the way he jumped the third last – it gives you some feeling.
"He knew what he was doing and if anything he was guilty of over-jumping. He wasn’t as fresh today – there were seven weeks between Kempton and Newbury and he was very fresh there, but the boss has him in good shape today.”
Nicky Henderson commented: “We always hoped that he might be a bit special. He was coming here to show off and luckily he has done it. It’s the way he loves to do it – he is very flash and very toey but he can afford to do it.”
The JLT Speciality Handicap Steeple Chase gave jockey Richie McLernon his first winner at The Festival when Alfie Sherrin stayed on best after a protracted battle with Fruity O’Rooney winning by one length for trainer Jonjo O’Neill. “I’ve been dreaming about this all of my life and it is an unreal feeling,” said the 25-year-old McLernon, who has been based with Jonjo O’Neill since July 2007. “My family (in Ireland) and everyone back home will be so pleased, hopefully my mum and dad were watching on television.
"Our horses have really been coming to themselves with the better weather, the team are in great shape and he has come right at the right time. We have a great team at home and AP (McCoy) helps me so much. He was one of the first to congratulate me afterwards and he meant it.”
There was a major upset in the Stan James Champion Hurdle when Hurricane Fly was beaten into third place by, ironically the Paul Nicholls-trained Rock On Ruby which Hurricane Fly’s jockey Ruby Walsh would probably have been riding but for his commitments with Willie Mullins. The 11/1 winner pulled clear of runner-up Overturn – an each way advice by Jason Maguire at Haydock – while Ruby Walsh had to be content with third place on last year’s winner Hurricane Fly, the 4/6 favourite.
Winning trainer Paul Nicholls, who had four runners in the race and was winning the Champion Hurdle for the first time, attributed the victory to ‘Team Ditcheat and Team Seaborough’ , a reference to his own yard and that of Richard Barber, who runs Nicholls’ satellite base.
Nicholls said: “I’m speechless. As time went on I fancied him more than my other runners. I feel Zarkandar left the race behind at Newbury and he didn’t look great in the paddock today, and you need an older horse.
"He did a great piece of work at Wincanton recently and he’s slowly come into the picture. I’ve always thought of him as a hurdler, not a chaser. He idled a bit in front, but kept galloping.”
The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Steeple Chase was marred when Scots Irish and Garde Champetre both lost their lives during the race. My personal opinion of the race is to wonder how safe it is to run horses over cross country fences for almost 4 miles on Good to Firm ground…
The race itself was won, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, by Balthazar King. At Cheltenham in November he had been barged off the correct course on the final turn when still in contention, was knocked over and a following horse stood on his head and fractured his cheekbone.
Trainer Philip Hobs said “He took a real battering last time and we thought he might have to have surgery on his cheek, but in the end the vets decided to leave it alone. He’s still got loose chips of bone in there, but they don’t bother him at all.
"You never know whether a horse will take to these fences until you try with them, but he seems to love them. He’s clever and brave and tried hard – he put his head down and battled today – and jumps brilliantly, which he always has done since a novice. He’s won twice round here over the normal fences so he clearly likes the place, whatever’s in front of him.”
The Festival really took off for the Irish as the brilliant mare Quevega won The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle Race (the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle) for the fourth year in a row.
She has been ridden each time by Ruby Walsh for trainer Willie Mullins. Her win today was some consolation for the Mullins yard which had earlier seen odds on favourite Hurricane Fly beaten in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Mullins said “She’s an extraordinary mare to come out every year without a previous run and to do it like she did today is amazing. They were tightly packed coming down the hill, and my mother asked Ruby how he held his nerve. He said, 'Well, I had nowhere else to go’."
Quevega was asked to win her race before the last and put in a fantastic jump before quickening away to win by 4 lengths with everything else in behind finishing in a heap.
The final race was The Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Steeple Chase in which Hunt Ball kept up his amazing level of improvement. The seven-year-old won at Folkestone last November off an Official Rating of 69 and after today’s win – his seventh in eight – runs he is set to be raised again from his current mark of 142.
Always in contention he led between the last two fences staying on well to win by 8 lengths. Trainer Keiran Burke said: “The horse definitely won’t run here on Thursday, I’m putting my foot down, and I don’t know where we’ll go. There’s been talking of the Topham Trophy at Aintree but I’m not sure I want to risk him there, he’s my pride and joy along with my baby boy.
"There’s still a bit more improvement to come from him, he definitely wants further as they went too quick for him today. You wait until you see him next year, he will have filled out and improved more. Maybe he might be a National horse.”
So at stumps on Day 1 the current score is UK 6, Ireland 1.