Gordon Elliott strikes major blow on opening day at Cheltenham

Lands 1,988-1 hat-trick, Willie Mullins has no first day winner for first time since 2008

Jack Kennedy gave 25/1 Labaik a brilliant ride to hand Gordon Elliott the first of his three opening day winners at Cheltenham. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Jack Kennedy gave 25/1 Labaik a brilliant ride to hand Gordon Elliott the first of his three opening day winners at Cheltenham. Photograph: David Davies/PA

 

Gordon Elliott transferred his domestic edge over Willie Mullins to Day One of Cheltenham with a superb 1,988-1 hat-trick packed to the festival rafters with significance.

Having worked a miracle to get the talented but famously mulish Labaik to jump off and then win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle from the Mullins favourite Melon, Elliott added salt to the wound as Apple’s Jade beat off his rival’s stars, Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini, in an epic OLBG Mares Hurdle finish.

That Mullins should be denied in the festival race he had dominated for eight years by a horse removed from his care by Michael O’Leary, and transferred to the man who threatens to dethrone him as Ireland’s champion trainer, will resonate far wider than just Cheltenham.

And if that wasn’t enough, the cherry on top of 39 year old Elliott’s momentous day came when his 2014 Triumph Hurdle winner Tiger Roll completed the most unlikely double by landing the four-mile JT McMcNamara National Hunt Chase under Lisa O’Neill.

Punters barely had time to grab their breath before a fourth Irish trained winner came in the finale through Tully East. But if Denis O’Regan knows what it’s like to win here, it was all new for O’Neill.

The 30 year old rider, who also works in Elliott’s office, described victory in her first Cheltenham ride as “overwhelming” although she appeared as impressively in control after the race as during it.

In the past Elliott has affectionately referred to O’Neill as a “small thing but a hardy bit of stuff.”

In the bigger picture however there was nothing small about Mullins, the man who has farmed Cheltenham like no one else - including four winners in 2015’s opening day alone - finishing with a blank while his ‘young pretender’ rival enjoyed a festival bonanza.

“I can’t believe it,” said the man who emulated his 2016 tally in a single day. “I thought if I had one this year I’d be delighted.”

Bryan Cooper labelled Elliott “a genius” after Apple’s Jade rallied when looking to be swamped at the last, kicking off a double for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown team.

Praise always flows in the winners enclosure but Labaik’s earlier 25-1 win in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle proved the man has got something exceptional.

That a horse in five of his previous 15 career starts had refused to race at all set the festival’s unpredictable tone in the very first race.

The 17 year old ‘wonder-kid’ Jack Kennedy celebrated his first festival winner in style. But the fluctuating nature of this game is that while he celebrated, far from the limelight his colleague Keith Donoghue must have been left with a maddening sense of ‘what if.’

On Saturday the near six-foot tall jockey tweeted that he was taking a break from racing for the “foreseeable future” after losing his struggle with weight.

He subsequently painted a visceral picture in which his own body has simply refused to play ball with the gruelling demands of this hardest of professions.

Elliott revealed that Donoghue was supposed to ride the mercurial grey and had been instrumental in the long winter struggle to try and get a horse who is a “machine” at home to replicate that talent on the racecourse.

“Keith was supposed to ride this horse and has done a lot work with him. He’s hunted him a lot. This should have been Keith’s day,” Elliott said.

Sporting attention though invariably goes to the winner and there was an undeniable sense that Labaik’s current reputation as racing’s No.1 ‘monkey’ will fade into a longer term legacy as Kennedy’s first festival winner.

It isn’t just Kennedy’s age that indicates precocity. Less than 18 months he was a name only to pony-racing cognoscenti. That change so quickly that he secured a first top-flight success last Christmas. Now he’s a Cheltenham festival winner and in the eyes of most, an assured future champion jockey with many more festival victories ahead of him.

“I have dreamt about this day for as long as I can remember,” beamed the teenager who finished all but tailed off on Labaik at Naas less three weeks ago but whose effort in getting him to finish at all could have saved the horse from being banned.

The grey had previously been suspended from racing for 60 days after planting his feet at the start in Fairyhouse and flirted perilously close to another at Naas. Rarely if ever can a festival hero have flirted so close with career-ending ignominy.

Kennedy gave the credit for Labaik jumping off this time to Cheltenham’s unique atmosphere diverting his attention.

Elliott’s explanation was more prosaic - “You can use a long whip here whereas you can’t in Ireland. I think he heard the crack and just went. But if he never jumps off again it doesn’t matter!”

On the day that was in it, with Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh failing to draw on Day One for the first time since 2008, no one was going to argue with him.

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