WITH a host of favourites beaten, the atmosphere on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival didn’t really let rip until the fourth race. But when the champion jockey won the Champion Hurdle, the racecourse erupted.
Never mind that the favourite, Go Native, finished only 10th. AP McCoy’s pale, drawn face for once split open with a smile as he rode back into the winner’s enclosure on Binocular, and that was good enough for the crowd.
Binocular’s trainer, Nicky Henderson — who also won the race last year with Punjabi — virtually ruled the horse out of the race with a muscle problem a couple of weeks ago. It took AP to declare that the horse was back to his best, after a schooling session last week, before the decision to run was made.
Sent off at 9-1, Binocular travelled so strongly that AP actually took a pull before the second-last hurdle and, rounding the final bend, the result was never in doubt.
“I think, at long last, the real Binocular showed up. I schooled him at Nicky’s on Wednesday morning and I wouldn’t have thought that he had seen another horse go so fast over five hurdles. We went so fast I frightened myself.
“I am so happy for the horse because, every time I’ve ridden him, I have thought the world of him and I can’t believe he didn’t win this last year. This was a better feeling than I have ever had on a horse.”
Nicky Henderson also trained the third horse home, Zaynar — the pair were split by Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Khyber Kim, who at one stage in his career was also trained by Henderson.
AP could only finish second in the Festival’s opening race, the Spinal Injuries Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, on Get Me Out Of Here. Richard Johnson won by a head on the Philip Hobbs-trained 12-1 shot Menorah, while the odds-on favourite, Irish “banker” Dunguib, was third.
Sizing Europe, trained in Ireland by Henry de Bromhead, took the Irish Independent Arkle Chase from Somersby, ridden by H&H columnist Robert Thornton for Henrietta Knight.
Robert suffered a heavy fall from Bensalem in the following race, the William Hill Trophy, won by small-time Cartmel trainer James Moffat with Chief Dan George, but was fine to ride Medermit in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle.
Big-priced winners were the order of the day — Chief Dan George was 33-1, and A New Story took the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase for Michael Hourigan at 25-1 — until the very last race. Quevega stormed home under Ruby Walsh to give the Irish their 6-4 favourite. It was the Willie Mullins-trained mare’s second consecutive win in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, and represents a fine training performance — she injured a hindleg suspensory ligament in France last May and this was her first run since.