Willie Mullins stands at the end of the parade ring, barely looking up, he utters three words, “Best of luck.” Ruby nods. That’s it. Nothing else to say.
The dynamic duo won twice Opening Day. Footpad was foot perfect (other than a one wakeup call down the backside) in the Racing Post Arkle, a stunning display of nerves and ability, launching at the second-to-last, directly across from where we stood, a kid on a playground, he stretched and launched like a cork from a shaken champagne bottle, flicking off the ground, we, just mere spectators roared with delight, gleeful. It was the jump of jumps on a day when there were many.
Buveur D’Air earned his second consecutive Unibet Champion Hurdle, but not without a fight. Mullins-trained Melon slipped through the inside (he nearly ducked inside the rail on the final bend) and made the 4/6 favorite earn it. The French-bred 7-year-old hasn’t lost a race since finishing third behind Altior here in 2016, winning all his races this season with consummate ease, nothing more than exercises.
This was a scrap.
“It was a brilliant race. They went a good gallop throughout and Buveur D'Air and Melon were able to then keep that gallop up in the closing stages, it was a great contest to keep that up the whole way,” trainer Nicky Henderson said. “They were two very brave horses, with two brave jockeys. I think he did get headed but Barry said he was never worried as he thought he would always get there. Buveur D'Air had a battle on his hands, probably his first real battle this year. After his last race at Sandown, we were talking about him not having any really hard races this year, but today was one. Unlike some of his prep races, this was a proper race and he showed his class.”
Geraghty missed last year’s Champion Hurdle after breaking his ribs and puncturing a lung a month earlier. This was sweet.
“It was a long year last year, but it’s been a great year this time,” Geraghty said. “Coming here, you are banking on a winner. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him and he didn’t get bad luck and he won. It’s great to get a winner – I missed last season and it’s great to get a big winner for your boss.”
Mick Jazz finished a game third. Owner George Mahoney is making plans for Belmont Park and Far Hills for the 9-year-old.
Mullins and Walsh also teamed with Benie Des Dieux to upset Apple’s Jade, who once was in their house, in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
Lizzie Kelly, hyped last when riding Tea For Two in the Gold Cup, slid below the radar, at least the mainstream media radar, and delivered a patient, tactical gem on Coo Star Sivola to win the Ultima Handicap Chase.
“I came here today and it was like I had grown up five years. We feel all the pressure but I think last year here with Tea For Two falling in the Gold Cup and picking the wrong horse in the Fred Winter, it was an educational year. After last year, I made my peace with never being a Cheltenham Festival winner and now I am. I am shocked and don't really know what to say for the first time in my life,” Kelly said. “Coo Star Sivola has been crying out for 3 miles and fences, and he had it today. The people behind me are one in a million and I have several of them. My mum has a hell of a lot to play as part of the gang and so does Nick who, at 62, still rides out this horse nearly every day.”
Summerville Boy reeled in the gallant Kalashnikov late in the game (I thought the money was in the bank) to win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, jockey Noel Fehily rising at the wire and holding his whip long and aloft like he’s done each and every time. Good horses, the future stars of the chasing game.
Rathvinden provided Mullins with a triple, as son Patrick deftly glided the sweet jumping chaser through the field to win the 4-mile National Hunt Chase by a neck over the gallant Ms Parfois.
Mick Channon enjoyed his first Cheltenham winner when Mister Whitaker took the finale, the Close Brothers Handicap Chase.
Punting went well, we skipped a couple of bankers and bobbed and weaved, picking up the triple in the third, that paid for the day.
As for today, once more unto the breach.
First Race. 1:30. The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £125,000. 2 miles, 5 furlongs, 26 yards.
Irish raider Samcro hasn’t lost in six career races. Next Destination hasn’t lost over hurdles. I’m going for an upset with the lightly-raced Duc Des Genievres, who will relish the distance.
The Picks: Duc Des Genievres, Samcro, Next Destination.
Second Race. 2:10. The RSA Insurance Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £175,000. 3 miles, 80 yards.
Slam dunk. Bank on Presenting Percy.
The Picks: Presenting Percy, Monalee, Al Boum Photo.
Third Race. 2:50. The Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. £100,000. 2 miles, 5 furlongs, 26 yards.
Wow, these handicaps are tricky. Max Dynamite has hit the board in two Melbourne Cups, earned over £1.7 million but is only 1-for-8 over hurdles and slides into the middle of the handicap. As You Were is still a maiden over hurdles. William Henry, Topofthegame and Mount Mews sport solid handicap form. I’ll be prudent with my money.
The Picks: Mount Mews, William Henry, Max Dynamite.
Fourth Race. 3:30. The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Grade 1. £540,000. 2 miles.
The feature. Altior rolls into this, 13-for-15 in his career and the winner of the Arkle last year. Taking the next, natural step in his progression to greatness, the 8-year-old should simply scamper around for his coronation. Of course, there was a warning fired two days ago, a bruised foot, the dreaded puss in the frog…it takes more than that to stop a train.
Of course, Douvan was the train last year, rolling into this race as the Irish banker, he never traveled, jumped like he was confused, wound up seventh and hasn’t run since. He returns a year later, a shadow of himself or a shadow caster on Altior?
The Picks: Altior, Douvan, Charbel.
Fifth Race. 4:10. The Glenfarclas Chase. Cross country chase. £65,000. 3 miles, 6 furlongs, 37 yards.
Cause Of Causes returns to what he does best but without his usual following. The Last Samuri switches to cross country after a long and stellar career over fences. I’ve always been a fan of Cantlow, maybe today is the day for the 13-year-old. Ah, and my old friend Tiger Roll, he’s garnered support but I’m not convinced he liked this experience the last time.
The Picks: Cause Of Causes, Cantlow, The Last Samuri.
Sixth Race. 4:50. The Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. £80,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.
One for the paddock.
The Picks: Act Of Valour, Mitchouka, Mastermind.
Seventh Race. 5:30. Weatherbys Champion Bumper. Grade 1. £75,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.
They say Willie Mullins is a certainty in here. That makes it easy, right? He’s got five entries. My 83-year-old father asked me about Thebannerkingrebel after he won a bumper at Bangor. That’s good enough for me.
Another one for the paddock.
The Picks: Thebannerkingrebel, Blackbow, Carefully Selected.