Bittersweet taste for Walsh after remarkable day at Cheltenham

IT is a measure of Ruby Walsh’s brilliance that he left Cheltenham feeling slightly deflated last night after a roller coaster day which had begun so triumphantly with him winning the feature three races on the National Hunt Festival’s opening day.

Ruby Walsh celebrates his victory on Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy.

The reason? His mercurial successes on Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen – the latter in the Stan James Champion Hurdle that saw trainer Willie Mullins saddle the first three home – were offset by the final flight fall of Annie Power with the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at their mercy.

The most expensive fall in racing history, this result saved the bookmakers from having to pay out £50m in accumulators which had been placed on this 12-1 accumulator and incurring Armageddon-like losses comparable to those suffered by the betting industry when Frankie Dettori rode his ‘magnificent seven’ at Ascot in 1996.

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In hindsight, Walsh probably should have asked Annie Power to shorten her stride going to the last – she had time to do so – but he was riding with such confidence, and invincibility, that it would have gone against all his instincts to over-complicate matters.

After all, he is already the winning-most rider in Festival history with 44 successes to his name and there has never been a better big race horseman on either side of the Irish Sea. The mistake was uncharacteristic and the crest-fallen rider’s lonely trudge back to the weighing room could not have contrasted greater with the three emotional highs which he had enjoyed earlier in the day.

“I don’t know why she did it. She was a bit far away and came down under the top bar and turned over. That’s racing, that happens,” he said philosophically.

“It’s been a super day. Douvan was great, Un De Sceaux was brilliant, Faugheen winning the Champion Hurdle was magic. At least Annie Power got up and there’ll be another day.”

The calamity did not stop the aforementioned Mullins from completing his own four-timer – his second-string Glens Melody, runner-up 12 months ago to the legendary Quevega, won a thrilling race to the line on a day of Irish domination in the Cotswolds as Emerald Isle trainers saddled five winners.

“It’s unbelievable to have four winners in one day. I keep thinking this is not real and it won’t last forever, so I’m going to enjoy it now,” said Mullins who has the firepower to monopolise Cheltenham for years to come thanks to the string of top young horses at his disposal.

This was encapsulated by Walsh’s ‘catch me if you can tactics’ in the Champion Hurdle on Faugheen, the horse likened to a machine because the gelding travels with such effortless ease.

Now unbeaten from nine starts, this appears to be a horse of limitless potential who could – fitness and form permitting – rack up a sequence of wins in hurdling’s premier race.

It also vindicated Walsh’s decision to ride Faugheen over runner-up Arctic Fire and record-breaking dual winner Hurricane Fly, who was a gallant third – there is no room for sentiment in this sport. This race was effectively won at the start where Walsh and Faugheen stole three lengths from their rivals on the run to the first flight.

The only semblance of an error came at the penultimate hurdle when the pacesetter landed awkwardly on his hind legs – a mistake that would have put paid to the chances of many lesser horses.

However, Faugheen had too much in hand on his rivals – former champion Jezki and The New One both put up below-par performances – and Walsh had time to celebrate his third victory in the race before passing the winning post in triumph.

“It was a massive decision not to ride Hurricane Fly,” said Walsh. “When you are in a stable like Willie’s and you see what Hurricane Fly is doing at home, it is still a big call to make and get off him.

“This is an incredible little horse, a fine horse. He was awkward at the second last but pinged the last and saw it out well.

“He is definitely not slow and no-one else wanted to make it so I was only going to go my fractions in front – I wasn’t going to go theirs.

“He’s got such a good turn of foot though. This is probably the best feel I’ve ever had from him – it was certainly his biggest challenge facing all these good horses. It’s some training performance to have the 1-2-3 ... it’s a great place to work and the man’s a genius.”

As for the “genius” Mullins, he suggested that Faugheen – now a two-time Festival winner after routing his rivals in last year’s Neptune Investment Hurdle – will stick to smaller obstacles.

“When you’ve got a good hurdler like this there’s no reason to go novice chasing,” he said.

The imponderable now will be whether Douvan is allowed to emerge as potentially the biggest rival to Faugheen – or whether he goes down the novice chasing route

As for Un De Sceaux, his jumping was foot perfect in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy and he appears destined to become a major player in future renewals of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

If only the same could have been said of Annie Power, the horse that Ruby Walsh had tipped as his most probable winner at Cheltenham this year. The irony on this most bittersweet of days...

Who won what on day one of Cheltenham...

1.30pm - Douvan: The team of Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and Rich Ricci win the opener for the third successive year.

2.05pm - Un De Sceaux: The first horse to make all to win the Arkle since Ferdy Murphy’s Anaglogs Daughter in 1980.

2.40pm - The Druids Nephew: A first Festival winner for Neil Mulholland who was based in North Yorkshire during his riding career.

3.20pm - Faugheen: Willie Mullins saddles the first three runners home - another first in an amazing career.

4.00 - Glens Melody: A four-timer for Willie Mullins as his second-string benefits from Annie Power’s final flight fall.

4.40 - Cause Of Causes: The four mile chase for amateur riders provides top owner JP McManus with a winner on his 64th birthday.

5.15 - Irish Cavalier: Victorious earlier on Glens Melody, Paul Townend completes a double on the day aboard the Rebecca Curtis-trained chaser. Winning connections aren’t the only ones celebrating as the Cheltenham management report a record first day attendance record of 63,249 people.