By Colm Murray
After all of the excitement, the outcome of this year’s Champion Hurdle turned out the be something of a damp squib for the Irish as Hurricane Fly failed to blow his rivals away. He ran his usual gallant race but the furious pace found him out in the closing stages.
Ruby Walsh sat him out the back and rode him from well off the pace, hoping to utilise his renowned finishing kick. He closed up on the pack before the fourth-last and coming down the hill looked to be in prime position to launch his challenge.
However, on the run to the second last, it was obvious that Walsh was not entirely happy as he niggled the favourite to close on the leaders. Around the final bend, odds-on backers knew their fate was sealed as Rock On Ruby showed no signs of weakness.
In the end, the Hurricane did well to battle on mightily for third place just behind Rock On Ruby and the mighty pace-setter Overturn.
It was a dream result for the bookies who managed to get one of the big hotpots of the meeting turned over. They would have had huge liabilities in doubles, trebles and accumulators after the stunning victory of Sprinter Sacre earlier in the day.
Sprinter Sacre - 'simply majestic' in the Arkle
Nicky Henderson’s charge was simply majestic as he lived up to all the pre-race hype and justified his star billing as a big-race steeple-chasing champion of the future in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy. Thankfully, Barry Geraghty saved my day as I had him backed ante-post at 5/1 but I was really hoping for that big-race double with Hurricane Fly.
Ah well, sufficient unto the day and all that claptrap!
I had a particular interest in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase as the grey mare, Tally Em Up, carried my green, white and gold colours. Thanks to trainer Phillip Rothwell and the connections, who invited me to have a bit of craic for the day.
I backed her each-way at 40/1 and she ran a great race to finish a gallant fifth, but there was no luck for the Irish here at all, as Balthazar King just edged out the brave A New Story in a thrilling finish.
This marathon event took a terrible toll on two of the best known Irish challengers as favourite Scotsirish and the great Garde Champetre, a six-times course winner, both had to be put down. Such is the price that some of these great equine gladiators are sometimes forced to pay.
The Irish champion trainers' luck turned for the better at last in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle when his much-vaunted mare Quevaga made it a fourth win in-a-row in this event, coming home pretty much as she liked.
She was a hot favourite at 4/7, so nobody got rich backing her.....but hard to credit that we had to wait for all of six races to get the first Irish Festival winner on the board.
At the end of Round One, I certainly wouldn't get a gold medal for my tipping but as they say in racing......tomorrow is another day!
Day two opens with the Neptune Novices Hurdle and this is one that would have centred on Willie Mullins’ Boston Bob had he remained in the field but he will take his chance in the Albert Bartlett instead.
In his absence, I think Nicky Henderson’s grey Simonsig could be the one to go with. Henderson thinks he is special, while Geraghty recommended this race for the horse. He looks the one for me.
The RSA Chase centres around Grands Crus from the David Pipe yard and he will take his chance in this race instead of going for the Gold Cup.
A hugely popular grey with a tall reputation, he can add this race to an already impressive list of steeplechase success.
The big danger could be Bob’s Worth who is expected to improve hugely on his recent Kempton second, while First Lieutenant could run a huge race for Davy Russell.
For me, it is Grands Crus for the win bet, with Willie Mullins' Call The Police appealing as an attractive each-way investment.
I think the Queen Mother Champion Chase will see another power packed performance from the reigning champion: Henry De Bromhead’s Sizing Europe.
Sizing Europe set to win battle with Big Zeb
The horse absolutely loves Cheltenham and he is a superb jumper who will enjoy the ground. He is in great form and gets on a bomb with jockey Andrew Lynch. Big Zeb should run a big race and he is a former Champion but I think Sizing Europe will prove too strong, as he did last time at Punchestown and I hope he wins for Henry and Andrew.
He would have to be my nap of the day.
Strangely enough, one of my bets of the meeting comes in the Fred Winter Junior Novices’ handicap hurdle. Trainer Alan King is over the moon about his charge Vendor, and thinks he could really be well treated in this race. I hear he is working brilliantly at home and recommend taking the 7/2 currently available about him. He could be considerably shorter by the off.
The last race of Day Two is the Champion Bumper and it normally the Irish contingent are very confident of winning this one, though we have been out of luck in recent years.
This time around I would not be at all complacent as the English challenge is very strong. For the home defence, Royal Guardsman and New Year’s Eve will be very hard to beat.
But I am hoping that northern trainer Brian Hamilton's Moscow Mannon will claim the prize for the visitors and I think he will prove the best of the Irish raiders though he may have a job getting the better of New Year’s Eve.
Watch Cheltenham coverage live on RTÉ One and RTÉ.ie (IoI) from 1.25pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday or listen live on to all 27 races with commentary on Radio (1pm to 5.30pm, all four days). Highlights on RTÉ Two from 7.00pm on RTÉ Two.