It’s fair to say day one of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival had a bit of everything. Driving rain in the hours before the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, the traditional curtain-raiser for the biggest week of the racing year, dampened bodies but not enthusiasm.
Maureen Mullins is the ultimate example of that. Wife of legendary trainer Paddy and mother of legendary trainer Willie, she has been coming to this meeting for no less than 66 years and her grandson, jockey Danny, reports his nan to be as enthused as ever.
“She comes two or three days early for fear they bring it forward a day,” he joked. “She definitely won’t miss it and she’ll probably stay for a week after in case anything else happens. She’s unbelievable, she’s flying up and down the roads in the car, not a bother on her, and wouldn’t miss Cheltenham for anything.”
She didn’t have to wait long for something new to celebrate. Willie Mullins saddled the winner of both the Supreme and the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase.
Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh was the man of the saddle for Klassical Dream’s Supreme victory and, like Maureen Mullins, the passage of time has not diminished his affection for this week.
“It’s great to be back, it’s a wonderful place, we don’t get to do this often enough as jockeys. To ride in front of these crowds in this atmosphere – it’s unique.” As for the conditions, the jockey with the most wins in Festival history was characteristically blunt.
“It’s a National Hunt game, it should be played in National Hunt weather.” One Willie Mullins winner became two when Duc Des Genievres powered to victory in the Arkle in the hands of Paul Townend.
The day’s main race, the Unibet Champion Hurdle was billed as a three-horse race with Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina looking to thwart the hat-trick-seeking Buveur D’Air.
But the glorious unpredictably of sport – this one in particular – is it rarely runs to script and this certainly didn’t.
Buveur D’Air fell as early as the third obstacle, Apple’s Jade never recovered from hitting the second and Laurina faded into fourth from the second last.
Ultimately, it was Espoir D’Allen, trained by Meath trainer Gavin Cromwell, who prevailed at odds of 16-1, ahead of 20-1 shot Melon with Silver Streak back in third at 80-1. The bookies couldn’t believe their luck.
It got even better for the enemy 40 minutes later when Benie Des Dieux evoked memories of Annie Power in 2015 when falling at the last with the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle seemingly at her mercy.
Things took a turn for the better in the next race as Rachael Blackmore, currently locked in battle with Paul Townend to become Ireland’s Champion trainer, became only the third professional female jockey to win at the Festival when steering 5-1 favourite A Plus Tard to an emphatic victory in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
By then the clouds had cleared and the sun was breaking through. Given the uplifting tale that had just unfolded, that was fitting.