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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 14 October, 2019

Donn McClean reviews a dramatic Day 1 at Cheltenham

Wins for Espoir D’Allen, Roksana and Klassical Dream were among the highlights.

Rugby Walsh falls off Benie Des Dieux during the fifth race of the day.
Rugby Walsh falls off Benie Des Dieux during the fifth race of the day.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

YOU WANTED DRAMA? You could have been sitting in the front row at the Abbey.

Espoir D’Allen ran out a seriously impressive winner of the Unibet Champion Hurdle in the end. JP McManus’ horse bounded up the hill under Mark Walsh to come clear of his rivals and record a remarkable victory, a first Champion Hurdle for his rider, a first for his trainer Gavin Cromwell, who is having a season of seasons. But that was the final act.

The drama started when the reigning dual champion Buveur D’Air came down at the third flight. It was a shame that JP McManus’ horse came down, that he was thereby deprived of his chance of completing a Champion Hurdle hat-trick and joining an elite group. He brought down Sharjah too. It means that we just don’t know how either would have fared.

The drama continued. Apple’s Jade made a mistake at the flight of hurdles in front of the stands with a circuit to run, and had to be ridden away from it by Jack Kennedy to go up again and match strides with fellow pace-setter Melon. Her rider never really looked happy after that, and she ultimately faded from the top of the hill.

Then Laurina came under pressure and, all of a sudden it became apparent that Espoir D’Allen was travelling best of all. And how. He hit the front at the second last flight, led into the home straight and powered clear up the hill.

Many thought that JP McManus would land his eighth Champion Hurdle today, but most of those thought that, if he did, it would be with Buveur D’Air that he would do it. In Espoir D’Allen, however, he has a young horse, a mere five-year-old, who may be only just beginning. He is only the second five-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle since See You Then, and See You Then won two more.

There was more drama 40 minutes later, when Benie Des Dieux went down to the final flight with the race in the bag, and came down. It was heart-breaking for her trainer and her rider and her owner, and for the many who backed her, and it left the way clear for Roksana and Harry Skelton to stay on up the hill for victory.

There was a good start to the day for her trainer Willie Mullins though, and her rider Ruby Walsh. Many said that the 2019 Willie Mullins Cheltenham team was not as strong as it has been in recent years. They said that he didn’t have the strength in depth. (It’s the weather.) Then they ran the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Mullins won it. Then they ran the Arkle, and Mullins won that too.

It was significant that Mullins decided to run Klassical Dream in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday, not in the Ballymore Hurdle on Wednesday, given that he also had Aramon in the curtain-raiser.

The Dream Well gelding travelled really well through his race for Ruby Walsh, he moved easily into the lead on the run down the hill, and he stayed on strongly back up it to record an impressive victory.

And later on the day, Rachael Blackmore continued her incredible season with a first Cheltenham Festival winner on the Henry de Bromhead-trained A Plus Tard. The rider had her horse in a really good racing rhythm from early, just behind the pace, jumping accurately. She kicked him into the lead at the top of the home straight and over the last two fences, and she didn’t stop kicking until after they had crossed the winning line, 16 lengths clear of her closest pursuer.

Dramatic day all right. More tomorrow.

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Donn McClean

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