QUEVEGA is the Queen of Cheltenham after she joined the immortals by becoming the first horse in Festival history to win six races.
Yet her widely-anticipated coronation was so nearly cancelled after the wonder mare’s stablemate Glens Melody, ridden fearlessly by Paul Townend, threatened to end the champion’s reign.
This victory was the least regal of the six. It was only secured in the final strides as Quevega and her jockey Ruby Walsh showed great tenacity to eclipse the legendary Golden Miller’s five successive Gold Cup wins in the 1930s.
On another glorious day for the Irish, Quevega’s glory run was preceded by Jessica Harrington becoming the first woman in history to train the Stan James Champion Hurdle winner after her Jezki won a thriller, although the race was marred by the tragic loss of Our Conor whose fatal fall badly hampered The New One.
A reminder of this sport’s cruel twists, it inadvertently highlighted the brilliance of Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins and his astute handling of the great Quevega.
To get a horse fit to run at Cheltenham for six successive years is a brilliant achievement in its own right. To win the same race, the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle in this instance, on each occasion is even more extraordinary.
After all, this is a lightly-raced horse, fragile in temperament, who has only competed twice in each of the last four seasons and who did not appear to relish yesterday’s quick conditions.
“It was fantastic the way she turned it round in the last 200 yards, she is so brave and keeps pulling it out,” said a visibly relieved Mullins. “It’s way up there, fantastic. I love Quevega and to do that was one of our missions coming here, to get her there, and I’m happy now for the week.
“She’s a superstar. I’m so pleased for her and her connections – she has her own place in history now here.”
Walsh said: “She’s a great little mare and that was the quickest ground she’s ran on. I was fairly tanking off the home turn and I was thinking I might not get Glens Melody back, but she was good.
“To come back here six times and do it, she’s 10 years of age – she has everything. It’s some performance from Willie to keep bringing her back and minding her and nursing her. It’s nice to be part of history. When they ask who won the most races at the Festival, it will be Quevega and I can say I rode her.”
Walsh and Mullins began their record-breaking day with Vautour leading from start to finish in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle – this horse has a stamp of a future Gold Cup contender after breaking the legendary Istabraq’s course record.
Both men were on course for a quickfire double with Champagne Fever in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy before being caught on the line by the Tom Scudamore-inspired Western Warhorse, a result which saved the bookmakers from a bloodbath after so many punters had placed combination bets on various Walsh and Mullins day one permutations.
Both had the magnanimity to express disappointment with Hurricane Fly’s below-par fourth-placed finish in the Champion Hurdle – it remains to be seen whether the 10-year-old, the winner of a record 19 Grade One races, stays in training or is retired with honour. The old warrior has nothing left to prove.
Though Jezki was a deserving winner of the day one highlight after outbattling My Tent Or Yours in a one-two for owner JP McManus, the race will be sadly remembered for the fall of last year’s Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor.
It left Sam Twiston-Davies many lengths in arrears on The New One who then finished fastest of all. Could he have won with a clear run? The jockey thinks so.
“It cost me six lengths and I got beat two,” he said. “I’m delighted for the horse, he tried his best. He’s young, he’s got time on his side and we’re very lucky to have him.”
The outcome was also a bittersweet one for 18-times champion jockey AP McCoy who opted to ride My Tent Or Yours in preference to Jezki.
That said, winning jockey Barry Geraghty has enjoyed a long association with Harrington – they entered Cheltenham folklore a decade ago with two-time Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Moscow Flyer – and the winning jockey acknowledged the enduring nature of this special relationship.
“I’ve been riding winners for Jessie since I was 17 or 18. She’s been great to me over the years with the likes of Moscow Flyer and it’s great to do it again here for her,” said Geraghty.
Harrington said: “It’s fantastic, it really is. It’s great to be in this position.
“Barry has ridden all bar two of my winners at the Festival so we have a good history together and he always seems to ride fantastically well for me. It was a good omen for the week when he rode a winner for me on Sunday.”
Jezki’s owner – the aforementioned McManus – was the first to commiserate with the connections of Our Conor.
And he was the first to congratulate Mullins who must now decide whether to retire Quevega – or attempt to win a seventh race in 12 months time.
The former beckons.
“We might be too greedy coming back for that,” said Mullins. “She’s got stamina, speed and everything.
“She’s just class – what more can I say? I’m so pleased for her and she has her own place in history now.”