A Day for the Ladies at Cheltenham’s First Day
There were many who thought that Cheltenham would be called off due to the on-going Coronavirus, but thankfully, reason prevailed and as the first day dawned, it was on. Typically for National Hunt meetings, the day started windy, blowing across the course with bouts of rain, but the weather certainly was not to dampen the enthusiasm for the event. As usual, the declared runners for the week were the best on offer from the National Hunt stables in both the UK and Ireland. The going for the first day was soft ground but heavy in places. There was also a strong headwind in the straight, making the efforts required by the horses finishing up the famous Cheltenham uphill finish all that more tiring.
Today, there were four Grade 1 races, the first being the opening race of the meeting, The Sky Bet Novices Hurdle, a race for 4 year olds and up over 2 miles and half a furlong. As usual when the tape went up for the 15 runners to start, the traditional huge roar from the crowd took the roof off the stands, but starter Robbie Supple was not happy and declared it a false start. Second time round, the starter was happy this time and yet another huge roar went up. Both Willie Mullins from Ireland and Nicky Henderson from Lambourn had representatives in the race. Mullins with Asterian Forlonge (started favourite) and Henderson with Shishkin, both owned by the same owner Mrs J Donnelly. Asterian Folonge took the lead until he tired 3 out. The Henderson runner took the lead 2 out and fought bravely till the end, just beating Abracadabras. First blood therefore to the UK with Nicky Henderson winning his 65th festival race. Shishkin (sired by Sholokhov) was ridden by Henderson’s stable jockey Nico de Boinville.
The second race was another Grade 1, this time, one of the most prestigious races of the whole meeting, The Racing Post Arkle Chase for 5 years and up over 2 miles. There were 11 runners in this contest. In another very tight finish the race was won by Aiden Coleman riding the Irish trained Henry de Bromhead Put The Kettle On. The jockey confirmed how the ground was so tough for the horses as it was very testing. Usually, this race is the domain of the geldings, and mares rarely win it, but not is year. Put The Kettle On (sired by Stowaway) is a mare was brought as a 3 year old for 20,000 euros at Goffs in Ireland in 2017 and was then syndicated. The second horse home was also from Ireland, Fakir O’udairies trained by Joseph O’Brien.
After a handicap, the third Grade 1 of the day was the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, another race of 2 miles and half a furlong for 4 year olds and up. The race had not only the largest of the Grade 1 fields today with 17 runners, but was also the feature race of the day. JP McMnus, the well known Irish National Hunt horse owner benefited from ‘birthday boy’ luck! One of his three runners, Epatante started 2 to 1 favourite, a mare who was dwarfed by all the other runners. Like the first race, the starter declared a false start, so all had to turn a represent again, and start with a standing start. Rachel Blackmore took Petit Mouchoir to the lead and stayed ahead of affaires until the penultimate of the eight fences when the McManus horse Epatante with Barry Geraghty on board for Nicky Henderson went on to win easily. Epatante is only the fifth mare ever to win the Champion Hurdle. Henderson has now won the Champion Hurdle no less than eight times, with his first victory in 1985. Epatante (whose sire is No Risk At All) is the French for ‘Dazzling’, and she certainly was! It was the ninth time that JP McManus has won this race.
The fourth and final Grade 1 today was the Close Brothers Mares Hurdle, a 2 miles 4 furlong contest for mares only who are 4 years or older. 9 runners took to the field for this one. This race had ten flights of hurdles and there were two horses very fancied runners; Honeysuckle ridden by top female jockey Rachel Blackmore and Benie de Dieux ridden by Paul Townened. Stormy Island took the lead for the first half of the race with both the two favourite horses travelling nicely in second and third positions, but a little way back. Five hurdles from home, Honeysuckle caught up with Stormy Island, and the two jockeyed for the lead. Benie de Dieux joined the fun and looked dangerous. Paul Townend continued his good run until the final turn for home when Rachel Blackmore snuck up the inside against the rail and once again took the lead, a position she was not to relinquish despite the best efforts from Benie de Dieux. Both the two horses were trained by Irish Trainers, Honeysuckle was trained by Henry de Bromhead and Benie de Dieux by Willie Mullins.
In the Prestbury Cup, a prize given for the biggest number of winners trained at the meeting between the UK and Ireland, at the end of the first day, the UK was in the lead winning five of the seven races on the card. There were two winners each for both Nicky Henderson (UK) and Henry de Bromhead (IRE). The two trainers, who usually take the lion’s share of wins at this meeting are Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins. Paul Nichols had no runners today and Willie Mullins had no luck!!