The iconic Cheltenham “roar” signalled the start of a brilliant opening day of racing at the four-day Festival today (Tuesday, 13 March), and it was Buveur D’Air who hit the headlines.
The seven-year-old, who is trained by Nicky Henderson and owned by JP McManus, was making a return to the Festival to retain his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown from 12 months ago.
Under Barry Geraghty — who missed out on the winning ride last year when sidelined by injury — the 4/6 favourite had to work hard up the tough Cheltenham hill when challenged by the Willie Mullins-trained Melon. However, the pair held on to win by a neck and it was the son of Crillon’s 10th consecutive win.
“It was a long year last year, but it’s been a great year this time and I can’t complain,” said Barry. “Coming here, you are banking on a winner. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat Buveur D’Air today. Having missed last season, it’s great to get a big winner for the boss.”
Walsh bounces back
Ruby Walsh, who broke his leg in a fall in November, made a remarkable winning comeback on day one of the Festival, when Footpad stormed up the home run to take a comfortable 14-length win, despite some jumping errors, in the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase beating the Nicky Henderson-trained Brain Power.
Ruby rode a patient race when Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados set off hastily and distanced themselves from the rest of the runners. However, there was no panicking from the winning jockey, who gradually picked them off round the home turn and up the hill.
Footpad’s trainer, Willie Mullins, said: “Going past the stands the first time the horse was off the bridle and when he made that bad mistake I thought ‘oooh that’s it, over’ and he was off the bridle the whole way down the back. But Ruby sat and waited for the two in front to come back — he had a feeling the ones in front were going too fast and it turned out to be right.”
Ruby added: “The way he stayed as a four-year-old suggests he would stay further, particularly as he is getting older. He has brains, he has pace and he has stamina. He is not a work horse at home, he is a racehorse and he saves himself for the racecourse — he is high class.
“I cannot say I was confident down the back, when he landed on the first one, but I said to myself that they were going too fast in front and can’t keep going.”
The Irishman followed this up later on with victory in the Grade One OLBG Mares’ Hurdle aboard Benie Des Dieux — the hot favourite Apple’s Jade finishing a disappointing third behind 33/1 shot Midnight Tour in second.
However, there was some disappointment during the day for Ruby when Faugheen “the Machine” looked a shadow of his former self in the Champion Hurdle, finishing sixth and another Rich Ricci-owned runner, Getabird, was an unplaced favourite in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ won by the Tom George-trained Summerville Boy.
Kelly’s first Festival victory
Lizzie Kelly celebrated her first Cheltenham Festival winner when partnering Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase. They held on by a neck to Shantou Flyer ridden by James Bowen.
“I came here today and it was like I had grown up five years,” said Lizzie. “We feel all the pressure but I think last year here with Tea For Two falling in the Gold Cup and picking the wrong horse in the Fred Winter, it was an educational year.
“After last year, I made my peace with never being a Cheltenham Festival winner and now I am — I am shocked and don’t really know what to say for the first time in my life.”
Sadly, Mossback and Report To Base were both fatally injured during the final two races of the day.
Don’t miss Horse & Hound’s Cheltenham Festival preview, on sale now (8 March 2018). Read the Cheltenham Festival report in the 22 March issue of Horse & Hound, plus read daily round-ups online (13-16 March 2018).