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Cheltenham day one: Festival fever dominates virus fears as JP marks birthday in style

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Charyn Willams, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, cleans the hands of son Harry at one of the hand sanitisers at the racetrack. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Charyn Willams, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, cleans the hands of son Harry at one of the hand sanitisers at the racetrack. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Charyn Willams, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, cleans the hands of son Harry at one of the hand sanitisers at the racetrack. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As birthday presents go, they don't come more perfect than winning your ninth Champion Hurdle trophy on the first day of Cheltenham.

Limerick horse-racing magnate JP McManus was all smiles in the winner's enclosure as he celebrated turning 69 by claiming victory in the feature race with his 2/1 favourite Epatante.

Superbly piloted by Barry Geraghty, a huge roar erupted from the crowd as they watched the champion jockey clock up his fourth win in the prestigious race, much to the delight of British trainer Nicky Henderson.

Heavily backed by the Irish contingency in attendance, a chorus of 'happy birthday' rang out from the parade ring as McManus described the win as "very special".

"The way Barry did it, he gave her a peach of a ride. Nicky had her in mint condition," he said.

"Full marks to the team. What can I say about Nicky? He has the numbers to prove it.

"You'd never get tired of this. It's a great feeling. I was delighted that Barry rode her with such confidence, he bided his time."

Geraghty's wife Paula was "thrilled". She looked stylish in her navy ensemble and Edel Ramberg headpiece and had travelled over with her sister Liz and a group of pals.

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Stylish: Gillian Gilbourne and Rachel Oates, from Millstreet, Co Cork, at Cheltenham on day one of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Stylish: Gillian Gilbourne and Rachel Oates, from Millstreet, Co Cork, at Cheltenham on day one of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Stylish: Gillian Gilbourne and Rachel Oates, from Millstreet, Co Cork, at Cheltenham on day one of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

"If there's nothing else for the week, that's brilliant to win and great on JP's birthday, it makes it extra special," she told the Irish Independent.

"He made that look easy. I enjoyed that one, I have to say. He was as cool as a breeze. We're just thrilled; we'll celebrate that one."

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Festival fever dominated any fears over the coronavirus outbreak on the opening day of the annual meeting.

Any concerns over ploughing ahead with the large-scale event were put to rest - for now at least - by the determined army of die-hard racing fans who poured through the turnstiles from early on.

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Racegoers watch a close finish during the first day of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Racegoers watch a close finish during the first day of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Racegoers watch a close finish during the first day of the festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

A total of 60,634 people were in attendance at the track on day one, a drop of 9pc from last year's figure.

Trilby hats and green country tweed was all the rage among the predominantly male attendees who were in high spirits for the start of what is widely described as an endurance test for racing fans.

Plenty of Irish had also made the trip over, including Wexford couple Katie McGivern and Tom Hore. They had left their two children under two with their granny as they relived some happy memories, having last come over together six years ago.

"We booked it ages ago so we made sure we did it. There is a bit of concern, but we had it all booked and planned so were coming regardless. The airport was empty but the flight was packed this morning. We're just here for one night," Katie said.

Getting into practice ahead of today's Ladies Day event was an uber-glam Gillian Gilbourne, from Co Cork.

She looked chic in a cream coat and matching headpiece by Marc Millinery.

"I just love it. I was a bit concerned about the weather but it's after drying up.

"We're over for the whole week and the same people are over this year again. We're coming about six years now," she said.

She was there with her equally stylish friend Rachel Oates, from Kerry, who had designed her own hat to match her powder-blue ensemble.

"I'm here for two days and then I'll decide what or not to stay on," she said.

She believed racecourse chiefs had properly prepared for the large-scale event, noting the hand sanitisers dotted around the course.

Large stands bearing the cleansers and the motto 'Don't Pass it On' were in evidence all around the track.

"I think as long as people are being sensible and washing their hands; it's just basic hygiene which everyone should have anyway," Rachel added.

There were also some blue-bloods in attendance, to the delight of royal fans, with Zara Tindall enjoying the day out with her former rugby star husband Mike.

And on the track, the Irish raiders got off to a strong start on day one. They clocked up three victories courtesy of Tipperary jockey Rachael Blackmore aboard Honeysuckle, in addition to Put The Kettle On, both of whom were trained by Henry de Bromhead.

Later in the afternoon, the curtain came down on day one with another Irish win in the last race, as the 12/1 shot Ravenhill, trained by Gordon Elliott, came home first past the post.


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