Trainer Gavin Cromwell was lost for words after seeing Espoir D’Allen produce a scintillating performance in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
With Nicky Henderson’s Buveur D’Air bidding to join the greats by recording a third successive victory in the race and Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina considered his major rivals, Espoir D’Allen lined up very much under the radar. Despite having won each of his three previous starts this season, and eight of his nine since joining Cromwell, pictured, Espoir D’Allen was a largely unconsidered 16-1, but there was certainly no fluke about his devastating display.
Buveur D’Air’s history bid did not last long as he came to grief at the third flight, while the prolific Apple’s Jade was in trouble some way out. Laurina looked poised to strike after moving into the slipstream of stablemate and last year’s runner-up Melon, but Mark Walsh had both in his sights aboard Espoir D’Allen and he engaged overdrive from the home turn to power 15 lengths clear.
Melon was best of the rest again, with Laurina fading into fourth and Apple’s Jade an even more disappointing sixth.
Cromwell said: “It’s brilliant, unbelievable. He’s been winning Grade Threes this year, so to win this is fantastic. I’m shell-shocked to win anyway, but to win like that – I’m just lost for words. When Buveur D’Air fell, we nearly got brought down. It’s unbelievable, I’m completely lost for words.”
While out of luck in the feature event, it was another productive opening day for Willie Mullins as he saddled Klassical Dream to win the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and swiftly followed up with Duc Des Genievres in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Klassical Dream (6-1) dominated the traditional Festival curtain-raiser under a jubilant Ruby Walsh. Mullins said: “It was a terrific performance. He was well within his own cruising speed. He looks a real good one on this type of ground.”
The winner was running in the colours of late owner John Coleman, and Mullins added: “It’s a very poignant victory for us. John passed away in the last few months. We’re here now, so we’re going to have a lot of tears and beers celebrating this.”
Duc Des Genievres (5-1) was even more impressive in the Arkle in the hands of Paul Townend, fencing fluently on his way to a 15-length verdict.
Mullins said: “He won as easily as any of mine ever – everything went right for him. It felt very good to win the first two races.”
The Closutton maestro was widely expected to complete a treble in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, with Benie Des Dieux the 10-11 favourite to successfully defend her crown and provide Mullins with a 10th victory in the 12 years this race has been run.
Punters roared as she powered clear on the run to the final flight, but, in an almost carbon copy of the fall suffered by Annie Power for the same connections in this race four years ago, Benie Des Dieux crashed out, leaving 10-1 shot Roksana to emerge victorious for Dan and Harry Skelton.
The trainer said: “It is magic – we were set for second, and that happens.
“I think our horse would have got a lot of plaudits for finishing second. It is a tough race,”
Nicky Henderson and Jerry McGrath combined to land the Ultima Handicap Chase with 10-1 shot Beware The Bear, before Rachael Blackmore booted home her first Festival winner aboard Henry de Bromhead’s 5-1 favourite A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.
A taxing day for many, which began with heavy rain before racing and featured four false starts, concluded with an attritional contest for the National Hunt Challenge Cup.
There was a thrilling finish to the four-miler, though, with Ben Pauling’s 14-1 shot Le Breuil narrowly outpointing Paul Nolan’s Irish challenger Discorama under top amateur Jamie Codd.