THE Cheltenham festival proved to be one of the most successful yet for Kilkenny horses and horsemen, not to mention locally-based stallions.
Leading the way was Willie Mullins, who was crowned leading trainer. Mullins was closely followed by stable jockey Ruby Walsh who took the riders award. If that was not enough local breeders and stallions were to the fore right from the drop of the flag on the opening afternoon.
The old adage of horses for courses was borne out when the Willie Mullins-trained Champagne Fever battled well to capture the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle under a masterful front-running ride from Ruby Walsh.
Winner of the Champion Bumper a year ago the son of Stowaway, which was bred near Thomastown by John Cahill, was well supported by Irish punters - however, the heavy hitters across the water waded in on My Tent Or Yours as if there was no tomorrow.
After a great race Champagne Fever and My Tent Or Yours jumped the last almost in unison but Champagne Fever showed what a tough customer he is, battling past his rival to land the spoils by half a length. This success will be a big feather in the cap of Kells stallion master Ronnie O’Neill, where Stowaway stands.
Hurricane Fly showed that old soldiers never die as he regained his Champion Hurdle crown by beating the reigning champion Rock On Ruby in a welter of excitement.
Irish-born Noel Feehily threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the field as the tapes went up by setting a cracking gallop aboard Rock On Ruby. To the consternation of his huge following Hurricane Fly looked in some discomfort at the halfway stage, but in the very best traditions he wasn’t finished yet.
Showing that there is no substitute for courage, Hurricane Fly came with a tremendous rattle from the second last. In spite of coming off a straight line on the run-in, he had two and a half lengths to spare where it mattered.
Mullins and Walsh were back in the winners enclosure just over an hour later when Quevega set a record by taking the two mile and four mares hurdle for the fifth year in succession.
Coming from off the pace, the nine-year-old had to survive traffic problems before pouncing late on to beat Sirene D’Ainay by a length and a half.
Day two saw Mullins pick up where he left off as Back In Focus got the better of another Irish runner Tofino Bay in the four mile novices’ chase for amateur riders.
Bred by Alice Connolly, the Bob Back gelding was given a superb ride by the trainer’s son Patrick. Amid the celebrations it was an emotional Mullins who spoke of how much the race meant to him, having won it twice himself during his riding days for his late father Paddy.
Windsor Knot, the resident sire at John McEnery’s Rossenarra Stud, got his name on the scoresheet when Flaxen Flare ran out a comfortable winner of the extended two mile juvenile handicap hurdle.
Held up early on, Flaxen Flare shot clear after the second last flight and won very much as he liked by four and a half lengths under Davy Condon.
A winner of four races at Group level, Windsor Knot has only two crops of racing age but is passing on his own ability to his stock. Breeders in the Kells area are well catered for when choosing a stallion.
Another locally-based stallion Shantou, which stands with Victor Connolly near Leighlinbridge, was responsible for the Champion Bumper Briar Hill which created a 25/1 upset in the hands of Ruby Walsh.
On paper it looked as if this five-year-old was the outsider of the three Mullins runners in the race. He seemed to miss the break but was given time to find his feet in the early part of the race.
The tactics clearly worked. Shantou arrived almost doing handstands off the home turn, racing away to win unchallenged by seven lengths from Regal Encore.
Beneficial, which has been such a great servant to Irish breeders since his arrival at Sean Kinsella’s Knockhouse Stud all those years ago, is still going strong as he proved his few winners. He was responsible for Benefficient, which gave trainer Tony Martin and rider Bryan Cooper a surprise victory in the two mile and four Jewson Novices’ Chase as well as Salsify in the Foxhunters Chase and Salubrious in the conditional jockeys handicap hurdle on Gold Cup Day.
The Gold Cup is the one race missing from the CV of Willie Mullins. He had a live challenger in the shape of Sir Des Champs, but he had to play second fiddle to the Barry Geraghty-ridden favourite Bobs Worth.
This was yet another triumph for Irish breeding as Bobs Worth is by Bob Back and out of a King’s Theatre mare. Both these sires were resident of Ballylinch Stud, where the new arrival Beat Hollow is creating quite a stir.
To cap a memorable week for Kilkenny punters Tom Mullins saddled the very last winner of the meeting when Alderwood showed a clean pair of heels to the field in the two mile and half a furlong Grade Three handicap chase.
Winner of the County Hurdle at the same venue last year, Alderwood was the gamble of the race. With plenty of money in the satchel, the travelling arrangements for next year’s festival are already underway.