“I think they’ve come here in better form this year,” said Willie Mullins in what may well turn out to be the understatement of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
With just one day down, Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh have already enjoyed a hat-trick of wins, with Hurricane Fly recapturing the Champion Hurdle crown he lost last year to Rock On Ruby, and Quevega swooping late to grab a staggering fifth consecutive victory in the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle.
Champagne Fever, another past winner at the Festival, having claimed last season’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper, got the ball rolling with a front-running success in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, holding off the 15/8 favourite My Tent Or Yours by half a length, with JP McManus’s other runner, Jezki, back in third.
Hurricane Fly, who became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain the title of Champion Hurdler, was taking on another two former champions in the day’s feature race, with the 2010 and 2012 winners Binocular and Rock On Ruby also in the line-up.
The latter, now running under the name of first-season trainer Harry Fry, came home best of the rest, two and a half lengths behind the winner, who appeared to come off the bridle around the halfway stage but was quickly back to his menacing best when taking up the lead after the second-last flight. Last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame flew the flag for the younger division, pressing Rock On Ruby up the run-in to take third.
“Coming here with huge expectations for Hurricane Fly and Quevega, I’d have been happy if just one of them had won so that’s great,” said Mullins after Hurricane Fly recorded his 15th Grade 1 success in the Champion Hurdle. Just over half an hour later, however, he was back in the winner’s enclosure after the diminutive Quevega justified those expectations and once again reigned over Prestbury Park after her relentless drive for home to peg back French raider Sirene d’Ainay ended in triumph in the competitive mares’ contest.
While her trainer must be congratulated for coaxing this fragile mare to such an impressive string of victories from her rare appearances on the racecourse, credit must also be given to Emmanuel Clayeux, whose representative Sirene d’Ainay gave favourite-backers a huge scare as she cruised through the race in commanding fashion. Clayeux was also Quevega’s pre-trainer before she transferred from France to Ireland, and he formerly trained and co-bred with his father Une Artiste, who finished further back in ninth and was the winner of last year’s Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle.
Mullins may be the dominant force in Ireland but when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, no trainer has enjoyed more success at Prestbury Park than Nicky Henderson, and he added yet another brace of winners to his tally, which stands now at 48 Festival victories.
Simonsig, yet another to have won at last year’s meeting, started as odds-on favouritism but was fiercely keen early on and was made to work hard to claim the Racing Post Arkle Trophy for his owner Albert Bartlett, who sponsors the Grade 1 three-mile novices’ hurdle on Friday.
“It was not quite the performance we expected by Simonsig. He was just too fresh and has done very well to win,” said Henderson, after his exciting grey was chased home by 33/1 shot Baily Green. “He looks a two-miler through and through and you can’t see him going two and a half with that style of racing, even though he was won over that distance over hurdles.”
Completing the day and the double for Henderson was Robert Waley-Cohen’s homebred Rajdhani Express, who won the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase under the owner/breeder’s son Sam. Waley-Cohen, the Chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse, will be hoping to see his colours borne to victory again later in the week when Long Run attempts to reclaim the Cheltenham Gold Cup, having won the race in 2011 and finished third behind Synchronised last year.
There was a Festival first for Brendan Powell Jr, who romped home aboard 28/1 winner Golden Chieftain in the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase for trainer Colin Tizzard. Powell’s father, also named Brendan and now a trainer, has two riding successes to his name at the Cheltenham Festival and his son is considered to be one of the rising stars of the weighing-room.
“Brendan is very good – a lot of the lads are good but he seems to be getting better all the time,” said Tizzard. “He is a cool boy, is always in the right position and he listens.”
With sub-zero temperatures overnight and throughout the morning, the Cheltenham team did a tremendous job in enabling racing to go ahead, albeit at the later start time of 2.05pm. The delay, along with continued frozen patches on the inner cross-country course, meant that the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase has been postponed and will now be run at the end of Thursday’s card, prior to the charity race, the St Patrick’s Day Derby.