THE Cheltenham festival was one of the worst ever from a punter’s point of view. By the time the halfway point was reached on Wednesday evening many who had made the pilgrimage from this side of the water were already on their way home.
From an Irish point of view our tally of five winners was well below what was expected. It was left to the Mullins brothers, Tom and Willie, to saddle four of these with the Cork-based Sweeney family completing the total.
Right from the opening Supreme Novices hurdle, when the 10/1 chance Cinders And Ashes landed the spoils, the groans of the Irish contingent could be heard far and wide, but the biggest upset on the first day came when the Willie Mullins hotpot Hurricane Fly could only finish third in the Champion Hurdle.
An odds-on chance, the Montjeu gelding was defending his crown and, for the bulk of the attendance, was the week’s banker after showing devastating form in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
With no less than 10 Grade One successes to his credit Hurricane Fly easily was the most decorated runner in the field. As is usual for him he was held up at the rear of the field by jockey Ruby Walsh as Overturn made the running. The latter was still at the head of affairs going to the second last flight but Rock On Ruby was poised to challenge and although Hurricane Fly had made some progress he was now under strong driving.
Rider Noel Fehily shot Rock On Ruby to the front on the approach to the last. He quickly established a clear advantage which he maintained all the way to the line, finishing three and three-quarter lengths ahead of Overturn with Hurricane Fly a length and three-quarters further adrift in third place.
Trained by Paul Nicholls, who won his first hurdling blue riband, Rock On Ruby was bred near Clonmel by John O’Dwyer, not far from where former champion hurdler Bula first saw the light of day. A horse that had already shown his liking for the track, the winner was only just off in the Neptune at last year’s festival. He was generally regarded as being the second string of the Nicholls yard but there was no fluke about his success. He could well return to defend his crown in a year’s time.
That remarkable mare Quevega opened the account for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh when she took the Grade Two mares Hurdle over two mile and a half for a fourth time. An odds-on favourite, the French-bred eight-year-old was settled in mid division. She improved to take over before the last flight of hurdles and ran on strongly to hit the wire four lengths to the good from Kentford Grey Lady.
One of an elite band to have posted four Cheltenham festival victories Quevega will remain in training. On this evidence she could yet match Golden Miller the only five-time winner in the history of the festival.
Wednesday’s Champion Bumper had a decidedly Kilkenny ring to it as Willie Mullins saddled his second winner of the meeting. Champagne Fever made most of the running and fought off a host of challengers in the straight before edging out the favourite New Year’s Eve by just over a length.
A son of the sire sensation Stowaway, which stands at Ronnie O’Neill’s Kells Stud, Champagne Fever was bred near Thomastown by John Cahill. He won his only point-to-point before joining the Mullins team and has progressed from there but his starting price of 16/1 hardly lined any pockets. A fine big horse, the winner could well follow in the footsteps of Florida Pearl and bypass the novice hurdle route to go chasing next season.
Sir Des Champs stamped himself as a horse of enormous potential when he turned the two mile and four Novice Chase into a procession at Thursday’s session. A winner at the festival last year Sir Des Champs was surprisingly easy to back as the bulk of the money was for Peddlers Cross however, this one rarely featured and was well adrift at the business end.
In contrast Sir Des Champs was never too far out of his ground before jumping the last in front and only needed hands and heels from rider Davy Russell to give Mullins his third winner of the meeting. Owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, the six-year-old is seen as a logical successor to War Of Attrition which landed a Gold Cup for the owner a number of years ago.
Tom Mullins kept up a great family tradition when he took the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle courtesy of Alderwood on the final day. Partnered by Tony McCoy, the Alderbrook gelding showed tremendous battling qualities to recover from some skirmishing on the approach to the straight and outmuscle Adgardo by three parts of a length.
One of three winners for owner J.P. McManus on the day - Gold Cup hero Synchronised was another - Alderwood has been a consistent animal and fully deserved his victory.