Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

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