“He won it the hard way, he battled hard,” eulogised winning jockey Barry Geraghty who was winning the Cheltenham Festival’s day one feature for a third time. “It’s real winter conditions.”
That sentiment was shared by a visibly relieved Nicky Henderson who was winning the race for a magnificent seventh time.
“That was the first time he’s had to put his head down and fight,” he said.
And a record first day crowd of 66,000 were treated to a thriller in the last when North Yorkshire jockey Brian Hughes got Mister Whitaker up on the line to win the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase – the rider’s third career success at the Festival.
In showing such tenacity on the heaviest Festival ground in a generation, the JP McManus-owned Buveur D’Air deservedly becomes the first back-to-back Champion Hurdle winner since Hardy Eustace over a decade ago.
A searching pace was set early on by Henderson’s forcefully ridden Charli Parcs who challenged 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen for the lead for much of the two-mile journey.
It was clear Ruby Walsh’s mount Faugheen, trained by Willie Mullins, was not travelling with his old zest and it was his stablemate Melon, brilliantly ridden by Paul Townend, who proved the biggest threat to the reigning champion.
There was little to choose between the pair jumping the final flight and both fought tooth and nail all the way up the hill, with Buveur D’Air – all guts – emerging victorious by a neck to also give the aforementioned McManus a seventh success in this race.
Geraghty, who missed last year’s race through injury, was full of praise for his horse on a pulsating day that, as expected, played to the strengths of heavy ground specialists. “The ground made it the ultimate test, there’s nowhere to hide,” he reported.
“It was a proper race. The runner-up came and I thought he was coming to beat me, but he’s battle hardened. He’s as tough as nails and pulled it out. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him, and he didn’t get bad luck today. He proved there he was a better horse than he was last year.”
Yet, while the aforementioned Faugheen is not the horse of previous years, Walsh and Mullins have a new steeplechasing star in Footpad who was imperious in the Arkle Trophy for novices.
Despite making one shuddering blunder, Walsh bided his time as Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados set an unsustainable pace in the demanding conditions before powering home by 14 lengths from Brain Power.
“It sent the hairs down the back of my neck,” said Walsh who only returned to the saddle last week from a broken leg. “He was brilliant. I can’t say I was confident when we landed at the back of the first down the back. I was kind of happy going the pace I was going – I didn’t want them getting any further away from me, you can make it on this ground but you have to do it on your terms, not the horse’s terms.”
He and Mullins completed a big race double when Benie Des Dieux prevailed in a three-way finish to the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham from Midnight Tour and Apple’s Jade, the first odds-on favourite of the week to be beaten. It became even better for Mullins when his son Patrick steered Rathvinden to a thrilling victory in the National Hunt Chase.
The meeting began when the Tom George-trained Summerville Boy lunged late to deny Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in a race that saw the hotly-tipped Getabird pulled up for Mullins and Walsh. It was reaffirmation of the form of January’s Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown when the two protagonists were first and second respectively.
On a day of close finishes, there was an equally thrilling finale when Mister Whitaker, the last of the horses to make the 20 runner cut, beat Rather Be in the dying strides.
Further evidence of the prowess of the aforementioned Hughes, it also vindicated the judgement of Henrietta Knight whose Best Mate won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups. Mister Whitaker was her first purchase since the death of her husband Terry Biddlecombe, the legendary former jockey.
The now retired trainer, who bought the winning horse for owner Tim Radford and winning trainer Mick Channon, said: “It’s so fantastic. It’s the first horse I bought for Tim since Terry died and it’s such a thrill..
“I know the feeling, I know the atmosphere. It’s just magic. Brian was just perfect with him. I first saw this horse at the Costellos, the same place I bought Best Mate from. I saw him jump and I just loved the horse. He wasn’t too expensive and he’s such an athlete.”
That view was shared by Hughes who said: “I didn’t know if he had got there as I was driving away but it was a good performance and I’m delighted. When you look at him, he’s quite tall and athletic so I think better ground will see him in a better light.”
And asked if the winner could, in time, graduate to the Gold Cup, the response of Channon, the former FA Cup-winning footballer, was emphatic. “I don’t see why not, as he’s only six. He has got a lot of class, this horse, and you haven’t seen the best of him,” he declared.