Ruby rules Supreme in Cheltenham opener

Ruby Walsh may have endured a nightmare season so far but the clouds lifted as he enjoyed a dream start to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival this afternoon.

Ruby Walsh may have endured a nightmare season so far but the clouds lifted as he enjoyed a dream start to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival this afternoon.

The rider has spent much of the season sidelined through injury, but the Paul Nicholls-trained Al Ferof made the fight back to fitness worthwhile as he landed the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Last season's Champion Bumper hero Cue Card was sent off the hot favourite for the Grade One heat, but although he travelled well for much of the contest, he was hard at work from the turn for home.

Sprinter Sacre looked the most likely winner at the top of the straight, with his stablemate Spirit Son bang there as well, but Walsh produced Al Ferof with a perfectly-timed run to claim top honours by two lengths.

Spirit Son filled the runner-up spot, with Sprinter Sacre third and Cue Card only fourth.

Walsh said: "I went into the ring expecting Paul to tell me to ride him in the first three, but he said no, give him time to settle and come home and he was right.

"They went a good gallop, the ground was a bit dead and he picked up when I really needed him to. He jumped super.

"It's great to be back, a lot of people have helped me, including my family."

Nicholls added: "You need to stay in this race - Noland won it for us a few years ago. Cue Card beat him last year in the bumper when we gave him weight.

"This is the first time I've ever had the horse right and it was a brilliant ride. It's great for Ruby.

"We've had a few get beat in the last fortnight and some people were questioning our form, but all I was concentrating on was getting the horses right for this week.

"If they all go like that we'll be laughing. To start like that takes the pressure off and it's amazing for Ruby to be able to do that. It's brilliant for him."

Owner John Hales added: "I thought we were running for fourth place, then I thought we'd got third and then it all happened, thanks to Ruby.

"His judgement of pace was unbelievable. He just took them and won it well.

"Someone said to me we should go for the two-and-a-half-mile novice, but you can't get better than that."

Cue Card's trainer Colin Tizzard offered no excuse for the eclipse of his stable star.

He said: "He ran well, he just wasn't as good as the others on the day. He's got no excuses, he got there as well as any.

"Joe (Tizzard, jockey) said everything went to plan. It was a championship race. There has been so much hype about the horse. He went off shorter than 2-1 but he still ran a fantastic race. Who knows what we'll do now?"

Nicky Henderson said of Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre: "They've run fantastic races and with Spirit Son I'll be very surprised if he's not back here in 365 days time for the Arkle. In another year, he'll have strengthened up a lot.

"Sprinter Sacre would be very unlikely to go to Aintree and we'll probably put him away."

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.


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