Quevega flies flag with fourth win
Racing:It wasn’t a great day for Irish trainers but one man and mare always deliver with impeccable timing. Willie Mullins and Quevega were at it again at Cheltenham today, with a fourth consecutive win in the OLBG Mare’s Hurdle that will have eased the pain of a Champion Hurdle defeat for stable companion Hurricane Fly.
The eight-year-old was sent off the 4-7 favourite and in a slowly-run race, Ruby Walsh sat towards the rear but made good ground to take closer order running down the hill. For a moment turning for home it seemed the gap might never come, but once it did, Quevega quickened up brilliantly to put the race to bed.
A fine leap at the final flight sealed the deal and she careered away up the famous hill to secure a four-length win. Kentford Grey Lady filled the runner-up spot, with Golden Sunbird third.
“She’s an extraordinary mare," Mullins said. “To come out every year without a run and do that, and do it in the style she did today, she’s extraordinary. I said to Ruby how did you wait and hold your nerve coming down the hill, and he said ‘well I’d nowhere else to go!’.
“She has a beautiful temperament and that’s why we can do this (bring her straight to Cheltenham each year). I’d hate to try and do it with the likes of Hurricane Fly, but every day I send this mare out to do something she’ll do it.
“If she does too much work, she’ll let me know as she’s just not good the following day. If she’s like that I just back off her and let her come back into form. She has her own way of doing things, but she’s a quite easy read. If you owned a horse good enough to win at Cheltenham, why not run it in a race it’s good enough to win?
“If she was running in the Champion Hurdle or the World Hurdle, she might have only won one mares’ race and maybe finished second or third in either of those races.
“This race was made for her and we’re going to keep her in training. Someone said something about breeding but I told the owner I’ll buy him a foal or I’ll buy him two if she stays in training! She is in good order and they are racehorse owners rather than breeders, so I’m happy to race her.”
He added: “It’s a huge relief. Hurricane Fly was disappointing and we had no luck in the cross-country. I hope she comes back to make it five (next year). We’ll head to Punchestown now and come back here next year.”
Walsh added: “It’s been a bad day but she’s some mare. She travelled and jumped brilliantly. I wouldn’t mind riding her again this day next year. The owners aren’t breeders so why not do it?
“It wasn’t a mad gallop but she travelled really well and jumped really well. When the gap came in the straight, she accelerated really well. We didn’t have much room coming down the hill but I knew I had loads of horse. I sat where I was and she did what she had to do.”
Sprinter Sacreturned in a scintillating performance to pummel his rivals in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
The 8-11 favourite had barely come off the bridle in his first three starts over fences and there was an inevitability about the result when he jumped to the front leaving the back straight.
From that point on Barry Geraghty gave Nicky Henderson’s giant gelding his head and he put daylight between himself and his rivals running down the hill.
To his credit, Cue Card came from out of the pack to throw down a challenge between the final two fences, but Sprinter Sacre was dossing in front and he only had to be pushed out after another excellent leap at the last to come home with seven lengths in hand, with Menorah in third.
Geraghty, who has been associated with great chasers such as Moscow Flyer and Kicking King, had warned in the build-up to the Festival that Sprinter Sacre was the best horse he had ever ridden and repeated the claim afterwards.“He’s unbelievable, he has so much pace and scope," said Geraghty afterwards. "I’m not sure I’ve had the privilege to ride anything like that. As long as he stays in one piece, that’s the main thing.
“Moscow Flyer would always doss and might just beat an average horse a couple of lengths. The way he jumped the third-last he gives you some feel. He knew what he was doing at the third-last. If anything he was guilty of over-jumping it. He wasn’t as fresh as last time. There was seven weeks from Kempton to Newbury. The boss had him in good shape today.”
Henderson added: “We always hoped he might be a bit special. He was coming here to show off and he’s done it. That’s the way he loves to do it. He is very flashy and very showy. That jumping was quite unreal. He was always travelling and he’s got up the hill.
“He’s got so much speed and scope, he’s just a dreadful show-off. That was really worth watching today. There was no point in Barry stopping him, they gave him a good lead and went a nice pace. When he’s jumping like that it’s a joy. He looked a proper horse and he was just showing off.”
Balthazar Kingemerged triumphant following a thrilling finish to the Glenfarclas Handicap Chase. The 11-2 chance was one of a number of horses who took the wrong course round this cross-country circuit in December, but there were no such dramas on this occasion.
The Philip Hobbs inmate was jumping out of Richard Johnson’s hands throughout the three-mile-seven-furlong prize and was never too far off the lead.
Wedger Pardy was the horse who led his rivals the wrong way in December, but this time Jacqueline Coward guided him round the course with aplomb and he was still bang there turning for home.
The 14-year-old A New Story, winner of this race in 2010, came from out of the pack to challenge at the final fence. He and Balthazar King fought it out up the punishing hill and it was the latter who won the argument by a head. Wedger Pardy ran an excellent third, with last year’s hero Sizing Australia fourth.
Johnson said: “He seems to have really taken to the fences well. He ran well the last day until we got taken out. One thing he does is stay and he battled all the way to the winning post, so it’s very good.
“He’s a front-runner and I kept thinking we’d take it up in a minute. We went a good gallop all the way and he does stay very well which has helped him in the end. After last time I wondered if I should ride in it but this was great.”
Hobbs said: “If he had won last time then he would have gone up in the handicap and might not have won today. He had a very bad fall at the course. He broke a bone in his cheek, so we knew he would have to have some time off. He jumped very well and he tries hard. It’s a different race but they all count.”
Michael Hourigan, trainer of runner-up A New Story said: “He just loves this place and comes alive here. He’s been unlucky a couple of times but he wasn’t today, he was beaten by a better horse on the day. This was his 99th race and his 100th will be in France in June.”
However, there was a sad postscript to the race as six-times course winner Garde Champetre and favourite Scotsirish had to be put down.
Alfie Sherrinfinished with a rattle to land the JLT Specialty Chasefor owner JP McManus, trainer Jonjo O'Neill and jockey Richie McLernon.
Fruity O'Rooney had led from flagfall and put in a gallant front-running display, jumping the last in the lead before being mugged on the run-in by Alfie Sherrin.
“The work the teams at Jackdaws (O’Neill’s yard) and Martinstown (owner JP McManus’ stud) put in is absolutely brilliant," McLernon said. “He jumped absolutely super. I was told to ride him with loads of confidence and get round if you can. That’s what I did and they are brilliant people to ride for.
“The ground was coming right and the horse was just coming to himself at home. The team are in absolutely great shape. Jonjo said go out and be confident. The team have done so well to get him here as he is a horse with a few niggly problems."
O’Neill added: “It’s great and lovely to get a winner at Cheltenham. We’re relieved as yesterday morning we didn’t think he would get in, but he did. It’s great for Richie. He gave him a brilliant ride. We really wanted to run him in the Pertemps but he wasn’t going to get in that.
“Any winner at Cheltenham is brilliant and this is a good horse, who’s had problems with his hocks, with his stifle, his joints, everything. He could be a National horse one day, you never know.”
The winner was going away at the line and won by a length in the end, with Fruity O'Rooney four lengths clear of Our Mick in third. The Package was well-backed and ran well in fourth.
Donald McCain's Cinders And Asheswon the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the opening race of the 2012 Festival.
Sent off at 10-1 following a victory at Aintree and two wins at Haydock, the five-year-old travelled strongly throughout in the hands of Jason Maguire.
A poor leap down the back straight threatened to ruin his chance, but Maguire stayed cool and after cruising into the home straight, another error at the last was not enough to stop him winning by a length and a quarter from Darlan.
The Charles Byrnes-trained Trifolium was best of the Irish, finishing third under Davy Russell.
“That was magic," said McCain. "I told the owners to help themselves to the 33s at Christmas. He’s a fair horse. I wasn’t sure if he’d be as good on that ground but he’s a bit like Peddlers Cross - he’s a tool.”
McCain continued: “My dad must be looking down on me. He bought him cheap and it’s all down to him, not me. We fancied him strongly but then when you get here, everybody fancies theirs as well. He missed the last flight, but he was getting there too soon anyway.
“He’s a Champion Hurdle horse. I don’t know about Aintree, we took him there last year and he ran as flat as a pancake. We’ll probably start him off in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle next season.”
Darlan’s trainer Nicky Henderson said: “This is not the worst place to be. He’s a lovely horse and he’ll be better next year.
Frank Berry, racing manager to Darlan’s owner JP McManus, added: “He ran well but just found one too good. He’s one to look forward to next year and chasing might be on the agenda.”
Charles Byrnes, trainer of third-placed Trifolium, said: “There are no excuses. He’s near enough top drawer and he might go to Punchestown, although he’s had plenty of racing this year.”
Alan King, responsible for the fourth home, Montbazon, said: “He’s run a nice race and was only beaten two lengths. He’s a lovely horse and one to look forward to next year.”
The Hunt Ballfairytale story continued as he secured his seventh victory of the season in the Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase.
Trained by Keiran Burke, the seven-year-old won off a mark of 69 on his first start of the campaign at Folkestone and was running in this fiercely competitive contest off 142 and with 12 stone on his back.
The 13-2 favourite was being pushed along by Nick Scholfield running down the hill, but responded to pressure and swept to the lead approaching the final fence. He was big and bold at the final fence and powered up the hill to score by eight lengths from White Star Line.
Owen Glendower and Battle Group filled the places.