Elliot dominated the opening day of races with three winners
For favourite backers the opening day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival was certainly not a profitable one. Bar Altior at odds of 1-4, no other favourite managed to win. In previous years day one has usually been fantastic for winning money with horses like Annie Power, Faugheen, Un De Sceaux and Douvan all getting punters off to a great start.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was a fascinating opening race. Much of the talk before the race was about the joint favourite Melon who is trained by Willie Mullins and was ridden by Ruby Walsh. Melon had only one previous start over hurdles in which he won a weak race, albeit in some style. Question marks surrounded that form and it really was a guessing game for some punters in terms of how he would actually perform.
Today, he ran a cracking race but unfortunately for Ruby Walsh he just wasn’t good enough. He was beaten by 25-1 shot Labaik who is trained by Gordon Elliott and was ridden today by 17-year-old Kerry native, Jack Kennedy. He travelled strongly throughout the race and jumped his hurdles exceptionally well. At such high odds it was definitely a huge shock and it was certainly 1-0 to the bookmakers. Melon finished two lengths behind the winner and in third place was River Wylde who found himself over ten lengths behind the winner.
Labaik ridden by Jack Kennedy comes home to win the first race of the day. The young Irish jockey celebrated his first ever win at Cheltenham this afternoon. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Next up was The Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. A race that Willie Mullins has won the last two years but with the absence of Min, the door was left widely open for the 1-4 favourite Altior. Trained by Nicky Henderson this horse is simply a machine. He beat Min comfortably in last years Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and he really has gone from strength to strength winning his last nine outings consecutively. Today was his tenth win in a row and although he didn’t destroy the field like some expected, he was still incredibly impressive winning by six lengths. Cloudy Dream fought hard in second but was no match for this British Beast who some people believe [if he keeps going in the right direction] could be as good as Sprinter Sacre, who was also trained by Nicky Henderson.
The feature race of the day - The Stan James Champion Hurdle. The talking point of this race was not the horses that were in it but the ones who couldn't make it, 2016 winner Annie Power and 2015 winner Faugheen. Due to injury neither horse were entered and therefore it opened up the race hugely and gave punters a bit of a headache trying to decide who to back.. Yanworth went off clear favourite at 2-1 and he was many people's Banker of the festival. Surprisingly today, he was incredibly poor and slipped way off into seventh place. Stable company and second favourite Buveur D'Air at odds of 5-1 put in a very bold effort to see off the remarkable My Tent or Yours. The latter has now been second four years in a row at the festival which is just an incredible effort by the ten year old who was as high as 16-1 in some places. Buveur travelled beautifully and as he came around the bend he looked extremely strong. It was JP McManus's 50th winner at the Cheltenham Festival and potentially his sweetest.
Buveur D'Air ridden by Noel Fehily comes home to win. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The final Grade one of the day was the highly anticipated OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag topped the betting for Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci, while Apple's Jade was a clear third favourite for Gigginstown. The Mullins mares won at last year's festival and it was a tough decision for the owner to throw two horses of such high quality into the same race. Many people thought Limini would run in the Champion Hurdle but she was confirmed to race in the Mares early last week and she went off the 6-4 favourite.
The form between the three horses was incredibly interesting. Limini impressively beat Apple's Jade last month at Punchestown which is why she went off as the favourite. Vroum Vroum Mag has raced 13 times for Mullins winning an astonishing 12 times. The only horse to ever beat her was Apple's Jade. History has a habit of repeating itself and again the Gordon Elliott trained horse came out on top. It was an incredible race with all three horses battling all the way to the line. Apples Jade showed her class and hung on for a one and a half length win over Vroum Vroum Mag. Limini fought bravely for Ruby Walsh as she finished in third just a quarter length behind her stable company. Apples Jade went off 7-2.
Bryan Cooper onboard Apple's Jade celebrates winning the race. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
It was an incredible day for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown as they managed to win three races. The third win came from Tiger Roll at a large price of 16-1 taking the JT Mcnamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders Novices’ Chase. At this stage last year Mullins had already secured three winners but he still has plenty of firepower for the rest of the week to catch a very confident Gordon Elliott.
The feature race tomorrow is the Queen Mother Champion Chase which sees 1-4 shot Douvan as the clear market favourite. Will this be the first winner for Walsh and Mullins?