The brilliant Irish team of jockey Ruby Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins swept the board on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, taking the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Stan James Champion Hurdle and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
Only six of the seven planned races were run, as the cross-country race has been postponed until Thursday in the hope that the ground on that separate track improves after partly freezing.
Walsh started the day as he meant to go on, with a superbly attacking, front-running ride on Champagne Fever in the Supreme Novices’. The Stowaway gelding, winner of the Champion Bumper last year, just saw off My Tent Or Yours and AP McCoy.
Things didn’t go Walsh’s way in the next race, the Racing Post Arkle Trophy. He pulled up Arvika Ligeonniere, also trained by Mullins, and it was Barry Geraghty’s time to shine on the odds-on favourite Simonsig.
The grey Simonsig wasn’t as impressive as expected, pulling hard and lacking some fluency in jumping. But he was able to give his trainer Nicky Henderson a 47th Cheltenham Festival success, beating Mouse Morris’ Baily Green by more than two lengths.
The third race, the JLT Speciality Chase, went to 18-year-old Brendan Powell jnr and the Colin Tizzard-trained Golden Chieftain. The Tikkanen gelding carried bottom weight in the 24-runner handicap.
But Walsh and Mullins were back in force in the big race of the day. Despite running in snatches and having to be ridden along at halfway, Hurricane Fly accelerated away up the hill and won a second Champion Hurdle.
The son of Montjeu took the race in 2011 but lost his crown to Rock On Ruby last year. The placings were reversed this time, and Hurricane Fly finished two and a half lengths in front of the Harry Fry-trained Rock On Ruby, with the five-year-old Countrywide Flame third for Denis O’Regan and John Quinn.
This victory took Hurricane Fly past the £1.3million mark in prize-money, and made him the highest earning Irish-trained jumps horse of all time.
“This means a great deal,” said Mullins, “but most of all that the horse came back and proved himself. He has justified our faith in his ability, and has done on the track what he had been telling us at home he could do.”
And Walsh and Mullins’ day was completed by Quevega’s victory in the mares’ hurdle. It was her fifth consecutive win in the race and she received the biggest cheer of the day from the crowd.
“It’s an amazing feeling – she’s some mare, isn’t she?” said Walsh. “She has a tremendous little engine and a wonderful attitude and you’d have to say she is trained by a genius.”
The final race of the day, the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase, went to Rajdhani Express. Owned and bred by Cheltenham’s chairman Robert Waley-Cohen and ridden by his son Sam – whose wife Bella gave birth to their first child last weekend – the Presenting gelding carried top weight of 11st 12lb to victory. It was also a second winner of the day for trainer Nicky Henderson.
After extremely low temperatures overnight, racing was postponed by half an hour. The course will be covered up again tonight and a precautionary inspection is planned for 8am tomorrow morning.