The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival produced a surprise winner in the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle, with the 16-1 shot five-year-old Espoir D’Allen claiming the day’s feature race.
Disappointment came early on in the race at the third hurdle when dual champion hurdler Buveur D’Air (Barry Geraghty) fell, leaving it a wide-open contest.
The eventual winner, who is trained by Irish farrier Gavin Cromwell and owned by JP McManus, led from two out. He drew clear approaching the last and stayed on impressively up the Cheltenham hill, under Mark Walsh, to beat Melon by 15 lengths.
“I am lost for words,” said Gavin. “Espoir D’Allen is French-bred and they do mature earlier. He has been winning Grade Threes this season, so to go and do that is fantastic. He wouldn’t stand out in the string on his work, but he’s a gorgeous-looking horse. I have three horses for JP and about 50 in total, but not many Graded horses.”
The winning jockey added: “For a five-year-old to do that was unbelievable. I was delighted when I saw the rain come this morning because he goes so well in it — I’m gobsmacked.”
‘A few tears and beers’
Willie Mullins trained the first two winners on the card with Klassical Dream coming home in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Duc Des Genievres victorious in the Grade One Racing Post Arkle Chase.
Klassical Dream fulfilled the dreams of his late owner, John Coleman, by providing him with a first winner at the Festival.
Ridden by Ruby Walsh, the Dream Well five-year-old — now owned by John’s wife, Jo — won by four-and-a-half lengths.
“We took a risk running him on goodish firm ground at home, but we thought he had a fair engine all along,” said Willie. “It’s a very poignant victory — John had a lot of cheaper horses with me, then he retired and sold his business two years ago and said, ‘here’s a few quid, go and buy me a Cheltenham horse’ and this is the horse. His wife and family are here today and they will be invited over for a few tears and beers to celebrate this winner — I’m delighted it happened for the family.”
Champion trainer bags a winner
Irishman Jerry McGrath steered home Beware The Bear for champion trainer Nicky Henderson in the Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase.
The Shantou nine-year-old was fourth in this contest last year and won by a length and a quarter, beating Vintage Clouds in the 24-strong field.
“We put the blinkers on him on Festival Trials Day here and tried to make the running — there were only six runners that day, he had a lovely, soft lead and enjoyed himself,” said Nicky.
“Today, I told Jerry to start out the back, then he can come and work past horses, rather than having to press.”
While, leading Irish lady jockey, Rachael Blackmore, secured her first Cheltenham Festival victory aboard A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.
The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old Ballyward, the favourite, was fatally injured in the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase.
Racing tomorrow in jeopardy
The Gloucestershire racecourse has called a precautionary inspection ahead of racing tomorrow (13 March), taking place at 8am, due to the strong winds forecast.
“Strong gusting winds are forecast for the area on Wednesday, but their precise strength and location are not possible to predict in advance,” said Ian Renton, regional director for the south west region of The Jockey Club.
“We are currently looking at forecasts of gusts in excess of 45mph, which may present challenges out on the track and around the site, dependent on their direction.
“While our focus is to race tomorrow, should the weather conditions not allow this we would stage the whole of Wednesday’s card on Saturday. This would allow for all seven scheduled races to be re-staged to provide participants with their opportunity to race at the Festival and with originally advertised conditions, which would not be possible in the two remaining days.”
*UPDATE: Wednesday 13 March 9am*
Cheltenham has confirmed that racing will go ahead on the second day of the Festival after a moderation in the forecast strength of the winds.
Simon Claisse, clerk of the course at Cheltenham, said this morning: “We are delighted that the weather conditions have changed from the initial forecasts and the prospect of higher wind speeds and gusts have receded.”
Don’t miss the full report from the Cheltenham Festival in the 21 March issue of Horse & Hound, plus read daily round-ups online.