Irish punters look to Ruby and Willie as Festival of dreams begins
The Irish tend to spend more than €22m at the Cheltenham Festival but they may better that figure for 2017 if things go favourably as the Olympics of Jumps racing commences today.
With 28 races between today and Friday, huge sums of money will be wagered, and the pressure is already on two legends to keep the hordes of Irish punters in profit.
Willie Mullins is seeking his fifth Irish Independent Festival trainers' title in succession, Ruby Walsh his ninth jockeys' gong from the last ten. And it is the axis' Melon, favourite for the opener, that carries enormous Irish support today.
Melon ran just once in Ireland but has been backed from 20/1 into 3/1. Walsh may have picked three others in the race but Mullins said: "Melon seems a natural jumper. When I bought him I thought, if he's good enough he's a Champion Hurdle horse."
The deadly duo dominate the Mares' Hurdle, which Mullins has won every year apart from its first renewal in 2008. He surprised analysts here by pitching two high-class horses against each other, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag, both owned by American multi-millionaire Rich Ricci.
Walsh sides with Limini, which beat Apple's Jade at Punchestown last month, but some expect that form to be reversed, especially as Apple's Jade has already beaten Vroum Vroum Mag - deserted by Walsh now - this season.
"I've thought for a while this was going to happen, and still at 11.30 on Sunday morning I wasn't sure (what to ride), and I suppose I've gone with recent form, and Limini's recent form is better than Vroum Vroum Mag's," he said.
"Vroum Vroum Mag has definitely done more and proven more in her career. . . but there's nothing between them on ratings (or) home work. I took a chance on Limini being one that's improving; Vroum Vroum Mag may have plateaued. That's my hunch."
Whether or not a hunch is what to side with this week will be debated among punters, many of them going to bank on Mark Walsh having his first Cheltenham Festival winner in today's feature Champion Hurdle. With Barry Geraghty sidelined with three broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung, his deputy for JP McManus, Walsh, steps in on Yanworth.
Frank Berry, McManus' racing manager, said: "Mark rarely leaves (a race behind him); it's hard for him to have ridden winners here when he didn't have the rides."
Ireland beat Britain 15-13 last year but, with the likes of Faugheen and Annie Power ruled out, are 7/2 to emerge in front this year.
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