Cheltenham Diary

THE post-race reaction following Hurricane Fly’s victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle was fascinating.

Willie Mullins paid an emotional tribute to his late father, saying “during the build-up with this horse I kept thinking ‘what would dad do?’ I tried to follow the same path.”

An opening day double was a huge fillip to the champion trainer but it’s the handling of his two jockeys that shows the qualities of the man.

The decision to replace Paul Townend with Ruby Walsh aboard Hurricane Fly can’t have been an easy one.

The trainer revealed: “I took Paul to one side and told him he’d be replaced by Ruby at Cheltenham and he said ‘fair enough, he is stable jockey’. However I told Paul that we would also be doing all we could to make sure he’ll be champion jockey at the end of the season and that he’d be riding a lot of our good horses for the rest of the campaign.”

So how did Walsh take the news that his firepower would be diminished in the coming weeks?

“He didn’t seem to like it!” beamed the trainer.

****

MULLINS was asked if Hurricane Fly’s victory in the championship race was the highlight of his glittering career? The trainer thought long and hard before replying no.

“It’s always very special to have a big winner here and I’ve had them at Punchestown and Aintree too.

“However for me Cousin Vinny’s win in the bumper here remains the highlight. To have a winner ridden by your son is very, very special. Judging by the size of Patrick now he won’t be riding any more either!”

*****

THE biggest-selling publication ahead of the Festival is the Weatherbys Betting Guide. Author Paul Jones pours over previous renewals of the 27 races and explains why history suggests your own fancy can’t win.

His ‘killer stat’ for the Champion Hurdle was that Montjeu hadn’t sired a Cheltenham Festival winner in 46 previous runners so a red line had to go through Hurricane Fly.

Now it’s easy with hindsight, but don’t expect John Magnier to get knocked over with National Hunt breeders wanting to send their mares to his Coolmore blue-blood.

It costs €75,000 to have a covering with the leading Flat stallion of his generation.

You’d have to win a few novice hurdles to pay for that…

I’m also not expecting Coolmore to proudly add the Champion Hurdle to the list of big-races won by Montjeu’s progeny on their website.

*****

THE meeting got off to a spectacular start for Walsh with Al Ferof winning the Stan James Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and no-one was cheering louder than William Hill.

They were out to get favourite Cue Card and pushed him out to 3-1 from 8am to 10.30. A flurry of bets followed, averaging £100 and with at least ten running into four figures.

Spokeswoman Kate Miller said: “We thought Cue Card was vulnerable but there were several anxious faces in our headquarters when he cruised to the front going to the second last. It would be a huge understatement to say we were relieved to see his run peter our up the hill. He took out nearly £1.5million in our book for the race.”

*****

THERE were two real losers from Ruby Tuesday - Racing UK and the bookmakers. The former ran an offer that if anyone subscribed to their channel in a 12-month deal on Tuesday and Walsh was top jockey at the end of the day, they’d refund the subscription cost.

Ouch – but it was far more painful for the layers.

Erstwhile Ladbrokes spokesman David Williams said: “Ruby looked bruised when he arrived at Cheltenham but left the bookmakers battered. We lost a significant six-figure some on the day but at least punters have money in their pocket and we’ll try to get it back.”

*****

YOU couldn’t help but feel sorry for Pat Rodford after Sparky May had run the race of her life to finish second in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle.

He retires at the end of the season and said: “No-one ever remembers who finishes second but this means the world to us. We’ll never forget it. Now I’m off to shake Willie Mullins’ hand – but I’ll have to tell him who I am first.”

*****

FOR years now big-hitting punters have smashed into one particular specials market.

That’s the one offered by bookmakers over the official going for the opening day. The racecourse have gone on record as saying good to soft is their preferred surface and year on year, we’ve had just that.

This time a flurry of four-figure bets saw the price for the eventuality crash down to 1-10 before betting was suspended.

Imagine the look on the faces of the punters when the going report came through at 0645. It read: “Following a dry night the going is changed to good, good to soft in places.”

The men with satchels were off to a flier.

*****

ONE of the lessons we learn in this game is when to keep our mouths shut. Last year Sizing Australia finished unplaced in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase but returned 12 months later to win well. Why?

“He was hampered last year and finished down the field but we didn’t make enough use of him and it was my fault. I told Andrew to ride him how he wanted today and that is what we did. It just shows that you should leave it up to the jockeys,” winning trainer Henry de Bromhead beamed.

****

IT’S a hard life being a handicapper. At the Cheltenham Countdown event trainer Nicky Henderson made a bee-line for Phil Smith to express his “disgust” at the mark given to Quantativeasing over fences. It was “ludicrous”.

Yesterday he duly ran off that mark in the Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase and beat all bar Divers.

Don’t think he’ll be coming down the stone or so that his trainer felt he needed to now…

*****

TALKING of Henderson he’s cutting a much slimmer figure nowadays with the weight having dropped off him after giving up drink since Christmas.

He had mused over whether to stay off if as he was feeling the health benefits but three second places on the opening day of the Festival are likely to have him reaching for the cork-screw.

******

A LITTLE whisper for tomorrow. Apparently So Young worked all over Quevega in their last serious gallop ahead of the Festival when conceding her two stones in weight. No wonder he’s been backed off the boards for the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle.

Picture: ROYAL OCCASION: Zara Philips during Centenary Day at Cheltenham

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