CHELTENHAM’S most successful owner JP McManus expected to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle on day one of the National Hunt Festival – but was surprised it was rising star Espoir D’Allen who carried his iconic green and gold colours to a famous victory.
It was a coming-of-age performance for the Gavin Cromwell-trained outsider who was an unexpected winner in a race that saw the McManus-owned Buveur D’Air, attempting to a win a third successful renewal of this race, fall early on.
With Buveur D’Air out of contention the race looked set up for the Gordon Elliott-trained mare Apple’s Jade, but Jack Kennedy’s mount was already out of contention as the remaining runners turned for home under clearing blue skies.
Though the Willie Mullins-trained Melon remained in front, with his stablemate Laurina travelling strongly in his slipstream, Mark Walsh was still biding his time aboard Espoir D’Allen, who had won each of his three previous starts this season.
He shot clear from the home turn to seal a hugely-impressive victory by 15 lengths from Melon with 80-1 shot Silver Streak in third and Laurina fourth.
A record eighth win in the race for McManus, a legendary gambler, it was a first Festival triumph for the aforementioned Cromwell as Irish-based runners dominated the feature races.
“I’m just lost for words. It’s brilliant, unbelievable,” said Cromwell, a softly-spoken farrier who now combines shoeing horses with training a 50-horse string. “He’s been winning Grade Threes this year, so to win this is fantastic.
“I’m shell-shocked to win anyway, but to win like that – I’m just lost for words. When Buveur D’Air fell we nearly got brought down. It’s unbelievable.”
Walsh said: “For a five-year-old to do that against what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdle fields for the past few years is unbelievable.
“I was behind Barry (Geraghty, on Buveur D’Air) when he fell and luckily I wasn’t in his way.
“I was delighted when the rain came (in the morning) because he goes so well in it. He just took me to the second-last and was in front plenty soon enough. I heard a horse coming and only realised after the last it was a loose horse.”
Buveur D’Air is trained by Nicky Henderson, who said: “We all have to take these things on the chin. When you are jumping like he does he only leaves an inch of margin from being so slick and accurate to being dangerously low. He was an inch lower than he should have been, I guess.
“I’m thrilled for JP winning. He must have felt the same when Buveur D’Air went, but I still had two in the race and he had one. It is sad for us, as everyone has done everything they can and he was in such good form.”
The meeting began with Klassical Dream providing Mullins with a record sixth victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle under Ruby Walsh – the mercurial jockey later fell at the final flight of the Mares’ Hurdle when the rider and his mount Benie Des Dieux had the race at their mercy.
Klassical Dream was running in the colours of late owner John Coleman, and Mullins added: “It’s a very poignant victory for us as John had a lot of cheaper horses with us and then he retired and sold his business and said, ‘here is a few quid, go and buy me a Cheltenham horse’ and this was the horse.
“He passed away in the last few months. We’re here now so we’re going to have a lot of tears and beers celebrating this.”
Mullins then landed the Arkle Trophy with the Paul Townend-ridden Duc Des Genievres in a race that saw Glen Forsa part company with Jonathan Burke at the fourth with Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov also among the casualties. Kayley Wollacott’s Lalor, the crowd favourite, ran no race and was pulled up.
While the rain cleared in time for the first race, a contingency 8am inspection will be held today because of forecast 45mph winds as Storm Gareth hits Britain.
The forecast provides an uncomfortable late reminder of similar conditions that struck on the same day in 2008 and caused the cancellation of racing.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase and other high-profile races were instead run later in the week, added to the Thursday and Friday cards.
However this meeting will be switched to Saturday, say Cheltenham officials, if the the safety of spectators cannot be guaranteed. Clerk of the course Simon Claisse said: “We are continually monitoring the situation and will keep racegoers informed.”