Rock On Ruby provided the big surprise on day one of the Cheltenham Festival when taking the Stan James Champion Hurdle by a stunning three and three-quarter lengths.
The seven-year-old beat long-time leader Overturn and odds-on favourite Hurricane Fly, last year’s winner, to give trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Noel Fehily a first success in the race.
“I’m speechless,” said Nicholls. “It was a great ride from Noel – he’s a good man and it’s great to give him a big winner.”
The 11-1 shot, a son of the Coolmore National Hunt sire Oscar, is trained at Nicholls’ satellite yard under the eyes of Richard Barber and Harry Fry.
“It’s testament to the whole team,” said Nicholls.
The day’s other heavily fancied horses, Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle Chase and Quevega in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, justified their short starting prices.
Sprinter Sacre was hugely impressive, jumping brilliantly to score by seven lengths from Cue Card. It was trainer Nicky Henderson’s 40th Festival winner and jockey Barry Geraghty’s 21st.
“I have never before schooled a horse round to win a championship race at the Cheltenham Festival – and that’s what it felt like, a schooling session,” said Geraghty. “He has so much scope and power, and he absolutely loved it.”
The day started with a win for Donald McCain with a horse his father, the late Ginger McCain, bought for £4,500 at Doncaster. Cinders And Ashes took the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle under Jason Maguire, beating Darlan and AP McCoy.
The most popular winner of the day was Hunt Ball, who took the last, the Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Chase, easily under Nick Scholfield to massive cheers. The 13-2 favourite lumped top weight to an easy victory for trainer Keiran Burke and exuberant owner Anthony Knott.
Richard Johnson and Philip Hobbs got off the mark for the week in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase with Balthazar King, and Richie McLernon rode his first Festival winner on Alfie Sherrin in the JLT Speciality Chase.
Sadly there were three equine fatalities on the first day of the Festival; Garde Champetre and Scotsirish in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase and Educated Evans in Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Chase.