Mullins’s Quevega warms Irish hearts

Quevega and Ruby Walsh emulate the legendary Golden Miller as a five-time festival winner

Racehorses compete during the Supreme Novices Hurdle Race. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Racehorses compete during the Supreme Novices Hurdle Race. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

 

[BYLINE1]BRIAN O’CONNOR
[/BYLINE1][BYLINE2]in Cheltenham

[/BYLINE2]
Cheltenham 2013 opened grey and freezing and none of it mattered a damn as Quevega put a perfect seal on a day that warmed Irish hearts to melting point.

Ever since Dawn Run, Ireland ’s race fans have been suckers for a Mullins-trained mare and Quevega showed why with a five-in-a-row in the OLBG Mares Hurdle that turned the schmaltz-dial to 11.

Technically the Grade Two contest should bow the knee to a Grade One like the Supreme that her stable companion Champagne Fever landed earlier in the day. But that is to ignore the sentiment that swept down from the Cheltenham stands as Quevega and Ruby Walsh returned after emulating the legendary Golden Miller as a five-time festival winner.

“She’s so precious,” admired Willie Mullins, even in the midst of his own record-breaking exploits. “I read about Golden Miller and these horses only come along once in a lifetime, once in a century. It’s a privilege to be part of it.”

That once-in-a-lifetime chance at a “drive for five” all but disappeared when Quevega disastarously clipped heels at the top of the hill and nearly came down. Never before had Quevega faced such a Cheltenham challenge and for much of the last half-mile it looked beyond her. But while she may not quite have Hurricane Fly’s class she possesses the same sort of resourcefulness. And clearly a sense of theatre too.

“I thought we were done for after what happened, but she picked up again turning for home,” Walsh said. “She would have won easily without that. But when your luck is in, your luck is in.”

[CROSSHEAD]Defeat for favourite
[/CROSSHEAD]There was nothing lucky about Champagne Fever’s defeat of the favourite My Tent Or Yours, Walsh grabbing the initiative from the start and beating off his great rival Tony McCoy on the run-in. “I thought Ruby was very good. He controlled the pace beautifully,” said Mullins. “The horse was fantastic winning the bumper last year and he was the same today. The plan now is Punchestown but we're really looking forward to seeing him jump a fence.”

The scale of the Mullins hat-trick is emphasised by how Champagne Fever, Quevega and Hurricane Fly were all winning again at the festival, a comment that also applied to Simonsig in the Racing Post Arkle. However his workmanlike victory was a rare example of an odds-on festival favourite returning to a sensation of anti-climax, his mountainous reputation meaning a hard-fought defeat of Baily Green didn’t exactly set pulses racing.

Ground conditions meant any prospect of a head-to-head between the grey and Overturn always seemed unlikely, and was finally put to bed when that pace-forcer clouted the third last fence.

Simonsig had put in a howler of his own a couple of fences previously and after having taken a fierce grip for the first half of the race, the unthinkable pre-race concept of defeat didn't seem all that preposterous when Mouse Morris’s 33/1 outsider Baily Green shadowed the hotpot into the straight.

A rousing jump by the 8/13 favourite at the second last ultimately proved decisive because he got tight to the last and had to feel the sting of Barry Geraghty's whip on the run-in to hold on by a couple of lengths.

[CROSSHEAD]Henderson forgiving
[/CROSSHEAD]“He has done well to win as he ran with the choke out the whole way,” said Nicky Henderson forgivingly. “The first three fences they were going quick, and he was wanting to go even quicker. He probably ran a bit too fresh and keen”

Having come so close to upsetting the odds, Mouse Morris's declaration of “disappointed but thrilled” made complete sense, although the winning jockey would have understood the mix of emotions. “It was harder work than I thought. The ground is dead, and maybe that didn’t help,” reported Geraghty. “He missed one down the back and that was unlike him. He was very good at the second-last and tight at the last. It didn’t set the headlines as we thought he might – but he was still very good.” Henderson himself summed up the sense of a work in progress with the prodigiously talented grey – “He’s a two-miler, but he’ll learn to settle – he’s got to!”

Brendan Powell Jnr clearly has learned plenty from his Grand National-winning father and the 18-year-old rode his first festival winner aboard the 28/1 Golden Chieftain in the JLT Handicap Chase. “Maybe 10 lengths is a bit far to be winning a handicap by but I didn’t want something to come out of the clouds and nab me,” he beamed. “Everything that could go right did go right.”

Sam Waley-Cohen knows that feeling from Long Run’s 2011 Gold Cup success and warmed up for a blue-riband repeat on board the topweight Rajdhani Express in the last.

The 56,284 crowd was a Day One record for the festival since it went to four days in 2005.