CHELTENHAM: Mullins and Ruby give the bookies a bashing

IT WAS only when the last race ended and the snaking columns of car lights began to illuminate the roads out of Prestbury Park and up towards Cleeve Hill that realisation dawned that we get to do it all again today.

And tomorrow. And the day after.

The Cheltenham Festival really is the gift that keeps on giving, and it was Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh vying for the lead role of Santa Claus on a day when the weather was more December than March.

A wind chill of -12C on Monday night had kept everyone on tenterhooks about the very viability of the event, but the covers protecting the course from Jack Frost were pulled and the games began — and only 35 minutes late.

Nobody really seemed to mind. Cheltenham is about nothing if not anticipation, and it was well worth waiting (that bit) longer for, not least for the thousands of Irish punters who swelled the attendance figures.

By the time we put Friday to bed, punters will have downed 220,000 pints of Guinness alone, eaten enough burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches that would stretch for almost 5km and, they will lay approximately £600m (€686m) on the nags.

There was the usual smattering of celebrities braving the chill even if Zara Phillips, the Queen’s eldest grandchild, had to protest her bona fides to an unconvinced security guard before gaining access to the parade ring.

The Olympian eventually saw the funny side of that and, though the ‘incident’ made predictable headlines in the UK, the news that mattered most was made by visitors who hailed from across the Irish Sea.

Mullins and Walsh, a dream pairing of trainer and jockey long before yesterday’s bounty, claimed a hat-trick of races, with Champagne Fever, Hurricane Fly, and Quevega, an achievement that would only be lessened by a list of superlatives.

The bookies, God bless ’em, took a pounding, and Walsh was the man who landed the blows, even if he was quick to point out the transitory nature of sporting success when told he had changed the lives of countless backers with his heroics.

“I changed them today, they will be cussing me tomorrow,” Walsh proclaimed.

If all the horsey parlance is hard to comprehend this week then be assured that what we are talking about here is sporting history being written and Walsh, a man whose words can be as delicious as his deeds, summed it up after the last of his wins.

“She has done something Kilkenny and Kerry couldn’t do,” he said, alluding to the failure of those counties’ famous five-in-a-row-chasing hurlers and footballers who fell at the last hurdle in their historic quests.

Mullins was chasing his own landmark this week, not that he would admit or try to make anything of it, but Quevega’s win allowed him surpass the legendary Tom Dreaper as the most successful Irish trainer ever at the festival.

“Delighted,” he said. “Just delighted.”

Roll on day two.

Top tips

Can Pat Keane surpass yesterday’s four-timer in today’s action?

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