Hurrican Fly and Quevega reward mullins patience
Willie Mullins stole the training honours on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival yesterday with a sparkling 6/1 double courtesy of the brilliant hurdlers Quevega and Hurricane Fly, the latter providing the Carlow-based handler with a first championship race success at the Festival in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
During a lucrative spell for Irish punters, Sizing Australia also maintained the raiders' stranglehold on the Glenfarclas-sponsored cross-country race. The Andrew Lynch-ridden winner led home an Irish 1-2-3, with fellow cross-country specialists Garde Champetre and A New Story filling the places.
Sizing Australia's victory was trainer Henry de Bromhead's second at the Festival following Sizing Europe's Irish Independent Arkle success 12 months ago, but there was no doubting that yesterday belonged to Mullins. His double provided the only bit of joy for favourite-backers on the day and both represented exquisite training feats.
Hurricane Fly, which had missed the previous two Festivals due to injury, had already amassed a hat-trick of Grade Ones at home this term.
And the seven-year-old added to his big-race haul in some style under Ruby Walsh, accelerating from the last hurdle to fend off the determined challenge of Peddlers Cross and Jason Maguire.
He had raced keenly early on for Walsh, hurdled fluently, and stormed up the hill to score by a length and a quarter, securing a first Irish win the Champion Hurdle since Sublimity in 2007.
By landing the two-mile hurdling crown, Mullins was emulating his late father Paddy, who sent out the great mare Dawn Run to record a famous win in the race in 1984.
Speaking after Hurricane Fly's glorious triumph, a clearly emotional Mullins paid tribute to his father, a legend of the game, who passed away last October.
"I'm delighted to emulate my dad," he said, "One thing he taught me was to have patience with good horses. You have to be prepared to wait and wait, and we've done that on occasions during Hurricane Fly's career. When he led on the run-in today I'd like to think he (Paddy) was there urging us on."
Mullins also reserved special mention for Paul Townend, the current jockeys' championship leader, who had ridden the horse to seven top-level wins, but was replaced by Walsh, who only recently returned from a four-month spell on the sidelines with a broken leg.
"I called Paul aside one day," the champion trainer explained, "and said I'm putting Ruby on the horse at Cheltenham, and he said: 'Well, he is our stable jockey'. I knew he was disappointed, but I said to him: 'We'll try and make you champion' and I hope we can do that.
"They are both level-headed guys, and I believe Ruby would be disappointed if Paul didn't win the title."
Quevega's stunning 10-length romp in the mares' race was the third Irish winner of the afternoon, brought up her hat-trick in the Grade Two and completed an opening day treble for Walsh.
The Co Kildare native had produced Paul Nicholls's Al Ferof with a late burst to get the meeting underway in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but Quevega gave him an armchair ride.
"It has just been a magic day," Mullins admitted after his 5/6 shot placed him top of the list of current Irish trainers at the meeting with 19 winners.
"Ruby has been fantastic and he gets on so well with the mare; he loves her and they just fire off each other.
"It was extraordinary how easily she won and Ruby said she was pulling hard coming to the second-last. She's a superstar."
The other Grade One on the card, the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, saw Noel Meade's Realt Dubh finish a pleasing third to the game winner Captain Chris. In a race run at frenetic speed, the Irish challenger lacked the tactical pace to trouble the Philip Hobbs-trained victor. Paul Carberry reported after: "Realt Dubh missed one or two, but apart from that he jumped great. He got a little tired at the end but the winner won well."