The Festival day one leaves the Cheltenham faithful walking on air

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Tue 13 Mar 2018

By Andy Stephens at Cheltenham

After the snow and rain came the sun at Cheltenham, and a succession of stirring races which swiftly banished all thoughts of the wild elements that had dominated the build up to the great meeting.

For the first time since 1982 the Festival began on heavy ground and fears that it would lead to a succession of unfathomable winners slogging home by wide margins at big prices were unfounded.

Six of the seven races were won by no more than half a length, with no winner returned at bigger than 9/1. No wonder the crowd of 66,000 - the second biggest there has ever been on the opening day - roared their delight.

Keep calm and kick on. It has always been the Cheltenham way.

It was business as usual for Nicky Henderson, JP McManus, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh - a quartet who between them have just about seen it all here at one of sport’s most wonderful amphitheatres.

Henderson and McManus combined to enjoy a seventh success in the Unibet Champion Hurdle with defending champion Buveur D’Air. Mullins saddled three winners - one, Rathvinden in the National Hunt Chase, superbly ridden by his son, Patrick. The other two, Footpad in the Arkle and Benie Des Dieux in the Mares' by Walsh, just five days after his return from four months on the sidelines with a broken leg.

The supporting acts more than played their parts to keep what might have been a soggy show on a solid footing.

Lizzie Kelly was overcome with emotion after enjoying a first Festival success aboard Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap. She revealed that she had needed the help of a sports psychologist to help banish the demons who had taunted her after she rejected a winning ride at the meeting 12 months ago.

And then there was Tom George, who at 1.36pm must have been a contender for the happiest man on the planet after Summerville Boy had overcome late blunders to snatch the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle from Kalashnikov.

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George is probably still smiling somewhere from ear to ear, at whatever time you are reading this. Likewise Mick Channon, whose Mister Whitaker edged home in the finale.

Top billing, of course, belonged to Buveur D’Air who, as expected, won a second Champion Hurdle but in nothing like the manner any of us expected.

Walsh immediately sent Faugheen into the lead but Charli Parcs, a stablemate of Buveur D’Air and in the same ownership, joined upsides to ensure the 2015 hero had anything but an easy time.

Geraghty adopted a stalking role but when Faugheen and Charli Parcs both cried enough, the jockey found himself in front much sooner than he would have wanted.

All of a sudden the stalker became the stalked and the eye was drawn to the strong-travelling Melon, the gamble of the day who was sent off at 7-1 having been 20-1 in the morning.

Over the final flight the race still hung in the balance but champions find a way to overcome adversity and Buveur D’Air pulled out a little extra to prevail.

2018 Cheltenham Festival - Champion Day - Cheltenham Racecourse Nicky Henderson and JP McManus won a record seventh Champion Hurdle (PA)

He won ugly but that did not matter to Geraghty, who was absent, recovering from a multitude of injuries, when the horse prevailed under Noel Fehily last year.

“There was nowhere to hide,” the jubilant jockey said. “The ground made it the ultimate test. He’s top class and he deserves the recognition. He scrapped it out today; he’s been flashy all season because he hasn’t had to deal with much, but today he had the opposition and he lived up to it.”

Henderson said it had been a “brilliant race” before wondering out loud whether Buveur D’Air, a notoriously difficult horse to get fully fit, had blown up.

“They were two very brave horses,” the champion trainer said. “It’s a big relief and it gives us confidence going into the week.”

McManus spoke afterwards of previous battles with Joe Donnelly, the owner of Melon, in the betting ring going back a quarter of a century. He picked up a winner’s cheque of almost £204,000, while the runner-up won £83,000, so on this occasion he enjoyed a £121,000 swing.

Mullins took Melon’s near-miss, a heavy defeat for Getabird and another reverse for Faugheen ‘The Not So Good Machine’ with typically good grace and by the end of afternoon could reflect on a hugely satisfying day.

Walsh and Footpad swept clear after Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados had raced with a wide advantage, while Benie Des Dieux came of age with her win in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle in which a subdued Apple’s Jade could finish only third.

The victory of Patrick Mullins, aboard Rathvinden at the expense of the wonderfully game Ms Parfois in the National Hunt Chase, will perhaps have given him as much personal satisfaction, although he was denied walking back into the winner’s enclosure with him when the latter was whisked away to weigh in.

Mullins Jr had been delayed because the exhausted Rathvinden needed attention and vets decided he would be better off not returning to the hullabaloo of the winner’s enclosure.

What a difference a year makes for Mullins. On this day 12 months ago he suffered a blank, then another 24 hours later.

Now, instead of playing catch-up, he is very much on the front foot. He will tackle Altior with Douvan and Min in the feature race on day two. Bring it on.

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