Day three of the Cheltenham Festival is designated as Ladies Day but the memo evidently didn’t reach everyone as the fairer sex instead opted to turn on the style on the opening day of the 2020 extravaganza.
The tone was set as early as the second race when the brilliantly-named mare Put the Kettle On got the Irish on the board when winning the Racing Post Arkle for Waterford trainer Henry De Bromhead and Cork-born jockey Aidan Coleman.
In victory, Put the Kettle On became the first mare to win the Arkle in 40 years, a notable achievement on the part of the 16-1 outsider.
Then Epatante took centre stage, the mare giving owner JP McManus a perfect 69th birthday present when justifying 2-1 favourtism in the feature race, the Unibet Champion Hurdle - a race in which the second, third, fourth, and fifth were all Irish-trained.
It was 60th Festival success for McManus, nine of which have come in this race. A delighted crowd sang happy birthday to him as he savoured the moment in the winner’s enclosure.
Paying tribute to his boss, Meath jockey Barry Geraghty said: “JP is sourcing this talent and he supports the game at every level. The birthday cheer he got today reflects what people think of him because he’s a top-class man.”
Then it was on to the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle and an eagerly awaited showdown between 4-6 favourite Benie Des Dieux and the unbeaten Honeysuckle, partnered by Ireland’s leading lady, Tipperary’s Rachael Blackmore.
It was Honeysuckle and Blackmore who prevailed after a thrilling battle to give De Bromhead a day one double.
“This means so much, this mare is so special,” an elated Blackmore said. “They’ve done an unbelievable job with her, Henry has produced her in tip-top shape every time she runs, so I’m just the lucky one that gets to steer her round. She’s unbelievable.
“This is brilliant, it’s a big week and I’m delighted. They (Festival winners) get better nearly, you kind of realise that they’re so hard to get. I’m so lucky to be riding all of these horses, it’s brilliant.”
Praising Blackmore, De Bromhead said: “Whatever about the mare, the lady on her back is something special — the pair of them are brilliant.”
That they are.
The Irish also won the finale, Ravenhill doing the business in the National Hunt chase for Meath trainer Gordon Elliott and Wexford jockey Jamie Codd, a success that leaves Ireland trailing the English 4-3 in the race for the Prestbury Cup.
“We really liked this horse. He was fifth in a Galway Plate and second in a Kerry National and he sneaked into this race as a second-season novice,” Codd said.
“Gordon Elliott is a genius. He was originally going to run in the Kim Muir, but Gordon decided he wanted to go for this race. I told him to decide and wherever he went, he was going to be a great ride. It's just a pleasure to be a part of this.”
It wasn’t all good news though as an attendance of 60, 604 was down 7,270 on last year’s record opening-day tally of 67,934, evidence perhaps of the lengthy and menacing shadow being cast by the coronavirus.
Who knows what time will ultimately make of the decision to go ahead Festival, but day one was a day to savour.
Roll on day two.