Rollercoaster festival is off to a flyer
Cheltenham Day 1: Ruby takes centre stage on the first day of Cheltenham
YOU come to Cheltenham with your bags packed to the brim with hope.
The only "safe" thing to do on the first day of the festival was to belt in for the rocky rollercoaster ride, with some of the Irish "super horses" delivering the yearned for multimillion-euro bonanza at the bookies. And others leaving gaping holes in pockets.
There were all sorts of stories to be told at the famous Cotswold track thronged by hopeful punters, British royals sans baby, former glamour models, Irish rugby stars, politicians, multimillion-euro bankers and ambitious jockeys aplenty.
History books were rewritten and the pockets of punters lined as the favourite "wonder mare" Quevega came powering up the famous incline to a thundering roar to win the Mares' Hurdle for the sixth year – and to surpass the legendary five Gold Cups claimed by Golden Miller in the 1930s.
"You come to Cheltenham with hope, more than expectation. The day you come to Cheltenham and expect is the day you are going to leave a sorry guy," said star jockey Ruby Walsh.
Leitrim milliner Jennifer Wrynne, a relation of the horse-owning Hammer and Trowel syndicate, revealed they were planning to pop the champagne corks in haunts across Cheltenham.
Yet, it was a day chockful of ups and downs.
Walsh was left "puzzled" – so too were the racegoers – after the much-feted Hurricane Fly was dethroned as he bid for a hat-trick in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while another Irish favourite, the €1m Our Conor, was put down after a crashing fall.
"Obviously, I'm a bit disappointed with Hurricane Fly but that's horseracing, that's life," the jockey added, after delivering one of the Mullins favourites, Vautour, in the first race of the day.
It was the turn of beaming billionaire JP McManus to take the silverware in the Champion Hurdle, with the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki powering up the hill in his eyecatching green and gold colours.
Limerick man McManus paid tribute to Harrington's bloodstock industry husband Johnny, who is watching Cheltenham from home due to serious illness.
"We hope he'll be well enough to join us again here next year," said McManus. "Our thoughts are also with the connections of Our Conor as well – it's very unfortunate.
"I'm ecstatic about having the winner and the second. It means an awful lot to me."
The man feted for his dalliances with the bookies told how he backed his own horses in the race of the day – including the winning Jezki, at 9/1, and My Tent or Yours.
"I had a saviour on Captain Cee Bee," revealed the cautious McManus. "I backed them both each way, I backed Captain Cee Bee to win but not very much."
Yet, even as Walsh mulled over the Fly's defeat, which stopped it truly being a Ruby Tuesday, he admitted it was "all still good" as they were all still standing.
His thoughts, and many of those at the track, turned repeatedly to Limerick jockey John Thomas McNamara, watching from a rehabilitation hospital after a crushing fall at last year's festival.
"I'm sure the connections of Our Conor would prefer that (jockey) Danny Mullins got up, if you know what I mean. Horses are horses, it's sad," he said.
"You can't replace a human – look what happened to John Thomas here last year."
Another accustomed to the ups and downs of sport was Ireland rugby star Sean O'Brien, who was using Cheltenham to help him keep his mind off being forced to watch Ireland's bid for a momentous Six Nations win.
Nursing an injured shoulder, the man dubbed 'The Tullow Tank' revealed it was his debut festival, as he enjoyed a two-day holiday.
"I'm looking forward to this one," he said, after enjoying the night before at a Cheltenham haunt favoured by winning owners and jockeys, the legendary 21 Club.
"I'm just here for the craic."
And, he hopes the four-legged Tullow Tank – a horse he once co-owned with his friend Paul Duffin before selling on to Barry Connell – will be back in action at Cheltenham next year.
Owner Connell decided the horses he has with Tipperary trainer Philip Fenton will not run until Fenton's ongoing court case for alleged possession of anabolic steroids is resolved.
"I'm disappointed he is not running but sure, you know, hopefully he'll be here next year," said O'Brien.
And, the only place O'Brien will be spotted this weekend is his house. "I won't go to Paris, definitely not, it'll be safer with me sitting in my own house," he joked.
Others spotted around the track included new mother Zara Phillips, wife of former rugby star Mike Tindall and granddaughter of the Queen Elizabeth, who was smiling and joking with friends as she left baby Mia at home for the day.
Elsewhere, former glamour model and mother-of-four Katie Price praised the view as she watched the top-notch racing from the grandstand.
Others spotted enjoying the racing were Independent Tipperary North TD Michael Lowry and Arsenal legend Paul Merson.
It was admittedly a good start for the bookies, with betting up and the failure of Hurricane Fly to shine.
A photo-finish, sending the heavily backed Mullins horse Champagne Fever back into second place in the Arkle, also scuppered punters as a long-shot won.
As for second place – well, in the words of Ruby Walsh, it's "nowhere".