A fantastic opening day at the Cheltenham Festival

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  • Why does Cheltenham always fall during Lent? As usual, I’ve given up chocolate. But today I might just have to be given a bye — how else am I to celebrate our H&H racing columnist’s brilliant day?

    Robert “Chocolate” Thornton had a cracker — he kicked off by beating AP McCoy in the first race, didn’t ride in the second, then won the Champion Hurdle, on a horse he adores, for his boss, Alan King. “Choc”, who grew up hunting with his father, Belvoir huntsman Martin Thornton, is, along with Richard Johnson, the best British jump jockey we’ve got, and got everything possible out of tiny little Katchit. He’s also a great columnist and always rings when he says he’s going to — take note, Mr Fox-Pitt!

    Having grumbled loudly about the prospect of four days getting blown about and soaking wet, it’s been a fantastic start. Not just because of Choc — the atmosphere is enough to lift even the most jaded racegoer. Nina Carberry got a tremendous roar for winning the cross-country race — in the process becoming the winning-most woman rider at the Festival with three victories (Gee Armytage managed two).

    The only person who didn’t look happy today was AP McCoy, whom I was rather excited to be parked next to this morning. He picked the wrong one in the first, being beaten on Binocular by Choc on Captain Cee Bee, who is also owned by the man who pays his hefty retainer, JP McManus. Then he shot off in front on the game mare Kruguyrova in the Arkle, only to get swamped by Tidal Bay. He won’t be much fun to live with until he gets one on the board.

    It’s always worth crowd-watching here. There weren’t many event horses being exercised today; most of their riders were at Cheltenham. Irish team member Austin O’Connor looked right at home in the Guinness Village, and Polly Stockton and Kitty Boggis were looking more glamorous than in their usual body-protector/crash hat combinations. And shouldn’t Belton horse trials organiser Stuart Buntine be building some fences, or something, instead of conducting winning connections around?

    PS: A plea to those who bet with the Tote — please don’t collect your winnings/do your placepot/spend 10min rootling around in your handbag in Tote queue in the last few seconds before a race is off. There are those of us who want to chuck our money away, you know.

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