HURRICANE Fly became the first horse to regain the Stan James Champion Hurdle since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 as he showed substantial guts to go with his undoubted class.
Winner of the race in 2011 but beaten into third when an odds-on favourite 12 months ago, plenty doubted the Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old’s chances. However, by post-time Hurricane Fly was once again a warm order as the 13-8 favourite.
He began to pick up coming down the hill and was in the lead soon after jumping the second-last. He jumped the final flight smoothly and dug deep on the run-in to score by two and a half lengths.
Rock On Ruby ran a tremendous race to finish second, while lasts year’s Triumph Hurdle hero Countrywide Flame similarly ran a blinder in third.
Jockey Ruby Walsh said: “I can’t say I was overly confident – from the word ‘go’ he didn’t travel as well as he can. He’s an unbelievably big heart for a small horse. He made a mistake or two, but he’s as tough as nails.”
Mullins added: “I was a bit worried at halfway. They’d gone such a pace and Ruby must have known that, too. Tactically, Ruby has a clock in his head and confidence in this horse as well.”
Nicky Henderson’s Simonsig maintained his unbeaten record over fences in the Racing Post Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival, but not without a fight.
The race had been billed as a clash between Simonsig, winner of the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle last season, and Overturn, last year’s Champion Hurdle runner-up. However, the tacky ground did not help Overturn get into his usual quicksilver rhythm and he faded into fourth.
Many expected a Simonsig cakewalk and even jockey Barry Geraghty was underwhelmed. He said: “It was harder work than I thought. The ground is dead, and maybe that didn’t help. It didn’t set the headlines as we thought he might, but he was very good.”
A pretty serious mistake at the ninth fence seemed to spark him into life, according to Henderson.
“He has done well to win as he ran with the choke out the whole way, it was not quite the performance we expected,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“He probably ran a bit too fresh and keen. He wasn’t concentrating terribly hard on what was going on. He made one bad mistake and that seemed to wake him up. The rest of it he was just going a bit too quick for his own good.”
Champagne Fever won for the second successive year over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival, yet trainer Mullins feels he will only reach his peak once he goes over fences.
Having claimed the Champion Bumper last year, the doughty grey repeated his all-the-way tactics in the Festival opener, the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which was delayed 35 minutes to give the course chance to thaw out. Champagne Fever’s stamina came into play in the final straight and, try as Tony McCoy might on favourite My Tent Or Yours, he could not maintain his challenge up the hill and went down by half a length.
Mullins said: “That’s a great start to the meeting. It was a very brave performance from the horse to lead like that and jump like that.”
Quevega rewrote jumping history when winning the same race for the fifth successive year at the Festival. The nine-year-old mare completed a nap-hand of victories in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle to make it a treble on the day for jockey Walsh and trainer Mullins.
In doing so she equalled the feat of Golden Miller, who won the Gold Cup from 1932 to 1936.
Amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen punched out Rajdhani Express (16-1) to claim a thrilling triumph in the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase.
And Brendan Powell jnr enjoyed his first winner at the meeting when storming to victory on Golden Chieftain in the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase.