Irish delight in Cromwell win at Cheltenham, but avoid Brexit donkey derby
Meath trainer’s victory in Champion Hurdle lights up first day of jump-racing festival
Espoir D’Allen ridden by Mark Walsh races to victory during the Champion Hurdle Challenge at Cheltenham. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Ireland rarely delights in a Cromwell victory, but this win at Cheltenham was sweet, particularly when there was little to cheer about Brexit at a certain parliament down the road.
The Irish came out on top on the first day of jump racing’s answer to the Olympics with four winners in seven races. They were led by Co Meath trainer Gavin Cromwell’s shock but resounding victory with Espoir D’Allen in a sensational Champion Hurdle, the highlight of the opening day and arguably the festival.
It was only horse racing, not the donkey derby at Westminster, that anybody wanted to talk about.
“Oh listen, I’m taking the week off. Thanks!” said Limerick racehorse owner JP McManus, waving The Irish Times away when asked if he was watching the latest developments around Brexit.
Luckily, there was plenty else to discuss with the racing.
It was a fairy-tale win for Cromwell, the soft-spoken farrier who was visibly stunned by his first victory in the Champion Hurdle.
“I am just lost for words – just brilliant, unbelievable,” said Cromwell.
It came after another McManus-owned runner Buveur D’Air – bidding for a hat-trick of successive victories in the race – fell at the third fence, sending gasps echoing around Prestbury Park.
McManus may not have his hat-trick with Buveur D’Air but he had a triple with Espoir D’Allen.
“Listen, any time you win the Champion Hurdle you are happy. You can’t be too fussy,” he said.
There was nothing cavalier about Cromwell’s own commentary around the stunning victory. Of jockey Mark Walsh’s ride, the taciturn trainer thought briefly and then said: “Perfection.”
He promised to return to defend the title: “I don’t think there is anywhere higher you can go,” he said.
A dramatic day of racing
Stratospheric Irish spirits were set early.
Ruby Walsh, Cheltenham’s most successful jockey, banished the ghosts of last year’s injury-marred festival with victory on Klassical Dream in the opening Supreme Novice’s Hurdle. It brought Willie Mullins his 62nd Cheltenham winner, another record for the Carlow-based trainer, and shouts of “Go on the Rubes!”
“Sure what else would you do?” said Walsh when asked if he liked the love shown by the large Cheltenham crowd. “You’d spend the other 300 days of the year looking around with no one looking at you.”
The Kildare man, just off his 59th Cheltenham winner, admitted that he and Mullins did not have a raft of “odds-on shots” this year but loads of “individual chances” that are “not all going to click”.
He was right. There were more gasps on a dramatic day of racing when Walsh suffered a nightmare fall at the last while leading on Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle.
Irish morale was lifted again when Rachael Blackmore landed her first Cheltenham Festival winner on A Plus Tard in the Novices’ Handicap Chase. The crowd lapped it up as she stood and jabbed the air afterwards.
Elsewhere, at the end of an eventful day of racing, Dublin punters John Mulligan, Dave Chapman and Paul Griffith toasted Espoir D’Air’s 16-1 victory and other wins as they contemplated whether they would return to Cheltenham if Brexit meant fewer Irish horses travelling next year.
“If you don’t have that competition between the Irish and the UK horses, then absolutely you would have to think about whether you would come or not,” said Mulligan.
“The standard of racing would drop,” added Griffith.
Brian Carey from Co Clare, down €70 with “not one winner” on the first day, struggled to figure out why his Irish favourites had failed to “get up that hill” but would not dream of betting on Brexit.
“No, no, no,” he said.
His Co Waterford pal Liam Drohan went further: “Jaysus no.”