Cheltenham: Willie Mullins completes first-day treble at Festival
Benie Des Dieux also scores under Ruby Walsh before Patrick Mullins brings home Rathvinden in front
Ruby Walsh, on board Footpad, wins the Racing Post Ankle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase during Champion Day of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Willie Mullins believes Footpad could develop into a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup following his brilliant display in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase.
Footpad was the first leg of a Mullins’s 55-1 treble as he helped Ireland to get back level at 3-3 with British-trained winners ahead of the final race on day one.
Having suffered a short-priced defeat with Getabird in the curtain-raising Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Footpad was the 5-6 favourite to get Mullins and his stable jockey Ruby Walsh off the mark at the 2018 Festival and it proved to be a fascinating affair.
Walsh, who only last week returned to action having been sidelined since suffering a broken leg since November, was coolness personified as he settled Footpad well off the furious gallop being set by his old foe Petit Mouchoir and the chief British-trained contender Saint Calvados.
Footpad gave his supporters a real scare when banking one of the fences in the back straight, but he soon recovered and with Saint Calvados weakening quickly not long after, Walsh set his sights on Petit Mouchoir and Davy Russell.
There was not a lot between the big two jumping the second fence from the finish, but it was clear Footpad had far more to give and much to the delight of the majority of punters at Prestbury Park, the French-bred gelding powered clear in the straight to score by 14 lengths.
Mullins said: “The two front runners went a real good gallop and Ruby was happy to leave them at it. The thing that probably wasn’t in the script was for him to make that mistake at the first one down the back.
“I wondered could he recover from that on that ground. Ruby just sat and he played the hand he wanted to play.
“I’m not sure whether my heart can take it anymore! He was so far back midway through the race, but Ruby showed nerves of steal.
“We know he stays. It’s a surprise to us that he’s able to win an Arkle. We had him down as our two-and-a-half-mile horse for this year, JLT or possibly RSA, but then when he came out and did what he did in his first two races we said we were in the wrong division and should go back for the Arkle and he’s done that now.
“I doubt I’ve had one improve so much from hurdles to fences. His jumping has just brought him up another gear.
“This fellow could be a Gold Cup horse. Lots of Gold Cup horses have won the Arkle and this fellow is much more laid back than some.
“I think we will have a good chat with connections and see if they would like to go in that direction. He has plenty of stamina.”
A jubilant Walsh had the luxury of being able to salute the crowd as he passed the post.
He said: “It sent the hairs down the back of my neck
“He was brilliant. I can’t say I was confident when we landed at the back of the first down the back, but I was kicking myself I went too fast in the first and thought they can’t keep going and would come back.
“It’s been a long old winter and this makes it worth it.”
Benie Des Dieux later provided Mullins with his ninth victory in 11 years in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle under Walsh.
The Irish champion trainer memorably claimed the prize six times with the remarkable Quevega and has since struck gold with Glens Melody – who profited from the final-flight fall of stablemate Annie Power in 2015 – and Vroum Vroum Mag.
Benie Des Dieux was second-best in the market at 9-2, with last year’s winner Apple’s Jade, a former Mullins inmate but now with Gordon Elliott, the 1-2 favourite.
Apple’s Jade was ridden forcefully by Jack Kennedy and looked to be travelling well before the home turn, but she was mastered by relatively unconsidered 33-1 shot Midnight Tour on the run to the final flight.
Walsh was hard at work in behind aboard Benie Des Dieux, but she responded to his urgings to get up and score by half a length.
Midnight Tour filled the runner-up spot ahead of Apple’s Jade in third.
Owner Rich Ricci, who had seen his hot favourite Getabird beaten in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, said: “You’re kicked in the first race and then you’re on top of the world in the fifth. It’s an amazing sport, fantastic.
“She’s very tough. We’ve had a hard time getting her to run consistently and we’ve given her a lot of time between races, so we thought we’d put her back to hurdles and it’s paid off today.
“It’s so great to have Ruby back. He is different gravy. You saw that there, he’s sensational.”
Walsh told said: “We always thought she was a really good mare. She got fractionally outpaced down the hill, but going down the hill I was thinking the others are starting to stop. She stuck her head down and rallied really well.
“She’s as tough as boots. She’s a very good mare. She’s probably a better chaser, but we’ll take this.
“It’s wonderful and I’m so thankful to everyone.”
Mullins said: “We decided to come for this race because there’s no mares’ chase. What else could she have run in? The Ryanair maybe, but this was the only race worth sending her back over hurdles for.
“After she’d won her first race for us we did a couple of pieces of work and I texted Rich to say she was like ‘Benie Des Douvan’ – that was the vibe she was giving us. I tried to keep that under wraps, though!
“When she won last time I told David [Mullins] to not leave Cheltenham behind, win if you can but don’t give her a hard race, and that’s what he did.
“Ruby was brilliant on her but she only just got home. She really needs a trip and will go way back up in trip and back over fences now.
“She really could be anything, I think a lot of her.”
Mullins’s third winner was a family affair as son Patrick steered Rathvinden to a thrilling victory in the National Hunt Chase.
The 10-year-old was among the market principals at 9-2 and was given a patient ride by Mullins junior, who was bidding for his second victory in the race following the success of Back In Focus five years ago.
The front-running Sizing Tennessee and Ms Parfois led the field into the straight, but Rathvinden was travelling ominously well in their slipstream and moved to the front after the second-last.
Ms Parfois ultimately refused to go down without a fight under Will Biddick, but the Mullins runner won the argument by half a length.
Sizing Tennessee was a long way back in third.
Coo Star Sivola clung on grimly to provide jockey Lizzie Kelly with her first Cheltenham Festival success in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Having opened his account over fences at the fifth attempt at Exeter less than three weeks ago, the Nick Williams-trained six-year-old was a well-backed 5-1 favourite for this three-mile-one-furlong contest.
Conditional jockey Kelly kept things simple aboard the market leader, settling just in behind the leading group, before allowing him to stride to the front before the home turn.
He was getting weary as the post loomed and Shantou Flyer came home to good effect, but Coo Star Sivola had just enough in the locker to hold him at bay by a neck.
Vintage Clouds and Beware The Bear finished third and fourth respectively.
Kelly was the first woman to ride a Grade One winner in Britain when Tea For Two won at Kempton in 2015 and was delighted to bag her Festival winner, after finding last season a difficult one, including when falling in the Gold Cup.
She said: “He’s been crying out for three miles and he’s had it today. My boyfriend Ed has been banging on about this horse for months and he was right. I am so thrilled, we’ve always thought a lot of the horse.
“I can’t believe it. The people who are behind me are one in a million and I have several of them.
“I came here today and it was like I’d grown up five years. I felt the pressure of course, we all do, but I was just pleased to be here. Last year wasn’t a great year, so I was just happy to be here. I felt relaxed and couldn’t wait to get to the start.
“I had a dream ride, really. I knew he would gallop up the hill, but my goodness that was the longest hill in the world! It feels so surreal, it feels like I’ll wake up in a minute.
“I’m just delighted owners have been so good to me, there’s been no suggestion of using a better jockey or more fashionable jockey and that does help you to relax. You know those people want you to be riding their horses.”
Williams, Kelly’s stepfather, said: “My heart was absolutely pounding. I was jumping up and down myself in the closing stages. I couldn’t believe it halfway up the run-in when I thought we might get caught again [like Maljamar, beaten a neck at Cheltenham in 2009].
“The expectation for a six-year-old novice was massive, but he’s always run well here. It’s his track.
“It’s fantastic to win, it had all looked to be going to plan up until the final fence and then the other horse started closing with every stride.
“It’s fantastic for Lizzie – her first Festival winner. It couldn’t be better. It was all perfection.
“To do it with Lizzie is great, family pride is up for grabs, but it also brings added pressure.
“Now the pressure has gone and it’s all relief.”
Brian Hughes delivered Mister Whitaker in the final strides to beat Rather Be in a thrilling finish to the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, the final race of the day.
A winner for Mick Channon at the track in January, he scraped into the race as the 20th of the 20 runners.
Settled in mid-division, Mister Whitaker’s backers would not have been getting their hopes up as Rocklander led over the last, only for Jerry McGrath to sweep by on Rather Be.
Hughes had just managed to save a bit on Mr Whitaker (13-2), however, and in a driving finish managed to come out on top by a head.
Rocklander was just over three lengths back in third, with the well-fancied Barney Dwan fourth.
In the opening race of the day, Summerville Boy lunged late to claim a thrilling renewal of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The Mullins-trained favourite 7-4 favourite Getabird set out to make all the running under Walsh, but he was a spent force before the home turn and Amy Murphy’s Betfair Hurdle hero Kalashnikov straightened up in front.
Tom George’s Summerville Boy, a 9-1 shot in the hands of Noel Fehily, was untidy at the second flight from the finish and also the last, but he devoured the hill to get up and beat Kalashnikov in the dying strides.
Mengli Khan was best of the rest in third.
Fehily told ITV Racing: “He’s a wonderful horse and what a training performance by Tom George. This horse was absolutely cherry ripe today.
“I thought I was gone at the second-last, I must have lost five, six lengths, but he was brave and fought back well.
“He was my best chance of the day, but you need a lot of luck. I thought if he didn’t fire today I might be struggling, but what a horse.
“I’m delighted, it’s a great start to the week.”
1 Summerville Boy 9-1
2 Kalashnikov 5-1
3 Mengli Khan 14-1
4 Paloma Blue 14-1
1 Footpad 5-6 fav
2 Brain Power 14-1
3 Petit Mouchoir 4-1
1 Coo Star Sivola 5-1 fav
2 Shantou Flyer 14-1
3 Vintage Clouds 7-1
4 Beware The Bear 14-1
1 Buveur D'Air 4-6 fav
2 Melon 7/1
3 Mick Jazz 25/1
4 Identity Thief 50-1
1 Benie Des Dieux 9-2
2 Midnight Tour 33-1
3 Apple’s Jade 1-2 fav
4 Indian Stream 66-1
1 Rathvinden 9-2
2 Ms Parfois 11-2
3 Sizing Tennessee 8-1
4 Impulsive Star 25-1
1 Mister Whitaker 13-2
2 Rather Be 12-1
3 Rocklander 25-1
4 Barney Dwan 15-2