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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 6 December, 2019

Johnny Ward's Day 1 verdict: Ruby lives to fight another day as Blackmore breaks through

It was an afternoon of high emotion at Prestbury Park.

Rachael Blackmore onboard A Plus Tard celebrates winning the Novices' Handicap Chase.
Rachael Blackmore onboard A Plus Tard celebrates winning the Novices' Handicap Chase.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE FIRST DAY of Cheltenham 2019 was one of firsts and déjà vu.

Trainer Gavin Cromwell went to the Cotswolds this week with one runner – Espoir D’allen in the Champion Hurdle – and a chance of success that the market estimated at around five per cent.

Rachael Blackmore was considerably more hopeful of glory – though the pioneering rider is too publicity-averse to admit as much.

But somehow the mares’ hurdle was all the chat – Ruby Walsh’s mount capsizing at the last again, just like Annie Power in the same race four years ago. The idiots will question Walsh with more gusto than before.

The similarities are uncanny. Both Annie in 2015 and Benie Des Dieux here were sent off odds-on. Both were ridden by Ruby. Both were in an apparently unassailable lead. Both are owned by Rich Ricci. Both fell.

The falls of both saved bookmakers millions, as Willie Mullins-trained accumulators are popular and the champion trainer looked certain to make it a tasty treble just five races in.

As the French-bred and French-named Duc Des Genievres brought up a double in the second race for Mullins, it very much seemed a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

A bang-average renewal of the Arkle Chase it may have been (as a friend said to me, “I doubt Arkle himself would have left the equine bar named after him to watch it”) – but Duc Des Genievres was awesome.

Rugby Walsh falls off Benie Des Dieux during the OLBG Mares' Hurdle Ruby Walsh falls off Benie Des Dieux during the Mares' Hurdle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Two races, two utterly dominant Mullins-trained winners. Soon afterwards, the clouds belatedly let in the sunshine, a grim spring morning having dampened both the spirits and the track, which unusually kicked off on soft ground.

The most touching moment of the day was when Klassical Dream won the opener for Mullins and Ruby, the latter’s 59th Festival winner. The horse’s late owner John Coleman had, his wife Joanne said, been dreaming of a Cheltenham winner since he was a teenager.

“My husband passed away in July and it was his dream… John’s ashes are in my handbag. He wanted desperately to make this Cheltenham. He’s not missed one for 20-odd years and we brought him.”

For Cromwell, the win of Espoir D’allen is a career high. As the horse crossed the line, he fashioned an expression to mirror the shock of Bishop Len Brennan after Fr Ted thumped his behind.

Earlier this month, Cromwell raised his training fees to €40 a day, essentially because the operation was making him little or no money. No owner complained.

And Blackmore’s handicap win on A Plus Tard ensured the warmest reception of the day for the most successful female rider to ever turn pro in Ireland.

If Mullins can reflect on a mixed day, Gordon Elliott’s blank, with Apples Jade again underwhelming, will have a self-confessed bad loser hungrier than ever to get off the mark on day two – presuming the wind does not force an abandonment.

And for Paul Nolan, narrow defeat in the finale, the well-backed Discorama just failing to match Le Breuil, was particularly sore.

“Jamie Codd is literally the last man you want against you in a finish,” said Nolan, like Codd a proud Wexford man.

Like Ruby and Benie, they live to fight another race.

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