Willie Mullins produced a terrific training feat to land the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Champagne Fever.
The flying grey ran deplorably at Naas in January, but Mullins nursed him back to full health and he arrived yesterday in mint condition.
Reports of great work over the last two weeks or so were far from idle gossip and he galloped his rivals into the ground.
Ruby Walsh can ride a race any way you want, but he’s simply superb from the front. He set a strong pace, although inclined to slow it down when it suited him.
Champagne Fever made his only mistake at the third last, but picked up at the back of the flight in a flash.
My Tent Or Yours arrived as a major danger turning in and, coming away from the final flight, appeared to be travelling the better.
But once Walsh got stuck into his partner there was only going to be one winner. Champagne Fever powered up the hill and was nicely on top close home to score by a comfortable half a length.
“That was a fantastic tactical ride by Ruby’, exclaimed Mullins. “I asked him before the race if he knew what he was going to do and he said he did.
“It’s some relief. The owner (Rich Ricci) wanted to go for this race, but unfortunately couldn’t be here today.
“The plan now is Punchestown and over fences next season. He jumps fences better than hurdles, he’s a super horse.
“I thought the game was up after the second last, but he battled back tremendously. It is as big a thrill as ever to be in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham and it was fantastic to watch him come up the hill.
“It’s the perfect start, absolutely great. Ruby controlled the race beautifully from the front.’
Said Walsh: “He just came alive in the last fortnight. I watched him at the Curragh a few weeks ago and his work was scintillating.
“Patrick (Mullins) has always maintained that he was a two-miler and an out-and-out galloper and was dead right.”
JP McManus, who owned both the second and third, My Tent Or Yours and Jezki, said: “I would prefer to be in the number one spot, but we will make do with this.
“AP gave My Tent Or Yours a brilliant ride, as did Ruby on the winner, but was beaten by a better horse on the day. The winner outstayed us and is a bit better than us anyway.’
Jezki ran a solid race for Jessica Harrington and Robert Power to claim third spot. He beat Champagne Fever in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, but never threatened to confirm that running.
Mullins and Walsh rounded off a near perfect opening day of the festival when Quevega won the OLGB Mares Hurdle for the fifth year in-a-row, joining Golden Miller who won the Gold Cup on five occasions in the 1930’s.
She almost came down at the top off the hill, but Walsh gathered her together and soon had her back on an even keel.
The damage seemed to have been done, though, and she was only eighth as they turned to face the judge. But Quevega is quite unique and found a serious turn of foot to power to the front in the last 100 yards.
“What can I say, I’m absolutely delighted for the mare’, said Mullins. “She’s so precious and we’re lucky to have her.
“I thought Ruby gave her a great ride, especially as she was on her nose down the back. This showed why he is so good.
“He didn’t panic and brought her back into the race slowly, which is probably what won it. She’s given me so many happy moments, it’ll be very hard to replace her.’
Mullins is now the leading Irish trainer of all time at the festival. A first day treble takes his score to 27, one in front of the late and legendary Tom Dreaper.
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