JP McManus has already owned the modern-day king of the Stan James Champion Hurdle in Istabraq and it was to be another green and gold moment on the opening afternoon at Cheltenham as 9-1 shot Jezki repelled My Tent Or Yours (3-1) by a neck in a famous one-two.
Synonymous with Festival gambles, McManus admitted to backing both of his horses but was quick to offer his condolences to connections of Our Conor, last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner who had to be put down after suffering a back injury from a horrible fall at the third flight.
Jezki had finished more than two lengths behind My Tent Or Yours in the 2013 Supreme and had also needed to turn the tables on Hurricane Fly, who was held for fourth in his bid to equal the three Champions claimed by Istabraq at the turn of the century. Winning trainer Jessica Harrington lodges with Nicky Henderson during Cheltenham week, and as the latter was responsible for My Tent Or Yours, the evening ahead was more than likely to feature some good-natured repartee.
Our Conor set off in front, but his mistake badly hampered The New One and allowed Captain Cee Bee, essentially the McManus pacemaker, to assume his duties.
He lasted until the penultimate flight, where supporters of 11-4 favourite Hurricane Fly were starting to get anxious as Ruby Walsh was already applying the pressure and the Barry Geraghty-ridden Jezki had secured a narrow advantage. Tony McCoy, who had picked My Tent Or Yours over Jezki, was within touching distance himself but the white cap of McManus’ retained jockey could never get past the quartered green and gold, as much as he tried, with the race run in a new record time, bettering that of Vautour in the Supreme Novices from earlier in the day, which had itself eclipsed the mark set by Istabraq.
McManus said: “The National Hunt season is centred around the Champion Hurdle for me because I didn’t have any Gold Cup horses and I’m unlikely to win the Grand National. The Champion Hurdle was all-important and full marks to everybody to have their horses in mint condition, as well as all the other runners. They were all a credit.”
He went on: “I did back Jezki and My Tent Or Yours, and had a saver on Captain Cee Bee. You just hope for one. I thought AP would pick My Tent, but I did think Jezki had a chance. They are all special – Istabraq was special, Binocular was special, and this is special.”
In the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle It was very much mission accomplished for Willie Mullins as the brilliant Quevega raced into the record books with a sixth successive win in the race. But the 10-year-old, sent off the 8-11 favourite in the hands of faithful partner Ruby Walsh, was made to work by her stable companion Glens Melody until getting her head in front in the final 100 yards.
Quevega was surpassing the legendary Golden Miller, who won five successive Cheltenham Gold Cups from 1932-36, and did so in her own inimitable style, making eyecatching progress and moving into third place before the final hurdle. From there the sights were set on Paul Townend and Glens Melody before she strode away up the hill to take her place in the record books, scoring by three-quarters of a length with L’Unique the same distance back in third.
Walsh said: “She’s a great little mare and that was the quickest ground she’s ran on. I was fairly tanking off the home turn and I was thinking I might not get Glens Melody back, but she was good.
“To come back here six times and do it, she’s 10 years of age – she has everything. She’s a superstar. I’m so pleased for her and her connections – she has her own place in history now here.”
Asked about a potential bid for a seventh Mares’ Hurdle victory in 12 months’ time, Mullins said: “We might be too greedy coming back for that.”
Mullins and Walsh had earlier teamed up to win the first race of the 2014 Festival as Vautour produced a stunning performance in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The 7-2 joint-favourite made nearly all the running as he swept to a convincing victory. Nicky Henderson supplied the placed horses with Josses Hill beaten six lengths in second and Vaniteux another half a length away in third.
Walsh said: “I rode him like a stayer, I wasn’t going to drop him in, and he jumped brilliantly. I’ve been doubting him all week, but he’s a serious horse.”
But the Mullins-Walsh dream team were denied a win in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy as 33-1 shot Western Warhorse, trained by David Pipe and ridden by Tom Scudamore floored Champagne Fever to cause a huge upset.
Champion Bumper and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Champagne Fever was an 11-4 joint-favourite to complete the Festival hat-trick and jumped superbly at the head of affairs under Walsh. However, Western Warhorse tracked him into the straight under a confident Scudamore and quickened up to lead after jumping the final fence. Champagne Fever did his best to battle back, but Western Warhorse passed the post a head to the good.
In the final race of the day Present View survived a lengthy stewards’ inquiry to give trainer Jamie Snowden a first Festival winner as he held Attaglance in a dramatic finish to the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase. Brendan Powell, who opened his account at this meeting 12 months ago, brought the 8-1 shot with a well-timed challenge to lead after the third-last. Malcolm Jefferson’s Attaglance put in a strong challenge and his rider Brian Hughes made a daring bid to try to get up the inside on the run-in. When the door closed, Attaglance was switched to the outside and closed the gap to half a length at the line. Pendra was three lengths away in third and Ahyaknowyerself was fourth.