Mullins breathing down Henderson's neck as normal service resumes
Closutton supremo just two behind all-time top trainer as 54/1 treble on opening day banishes painful memories of last year's early Festival reversals
After enduring a horrid time on the opening two days of last year's Festival - when some were asking if his best training performances were behind him - Willie Mullins now stands within two winners of Nicky Henderson as the most successful trainer in Cheltenham history.
Six winners over the final two days 12 months ago were an apt reminder of what the master of Closutton can achieve and despite travelling with less superstars this term, he walked away with a 54/1 three-timer yesterday to bring his festival tally to 57.
Getabird's failure to fire in the first burst the bubble of many punters but they hadn't long to wait to recoup losses as it turned into yet another 'Ruby Tuesday' with the irreplaceable Ruby Walsh showing no ill effects on his return from a broken leg to guide the brilliant Footpad (5/6 favourite) to Grade One glory in the Arkle.
Such is his breath-taking jumping ability - even overcoming a blunder at the third - Mullins believes he could have a future Gold Cup candidate on his hands with a horse that oozed class under the Festival's top jockey.
"We had him marked down as a JLT horse and were looking around trying to buy novice chasers to run over two miles. When we ran this fella in his first two races we said 'Eh, we have the best one in our yard!' His jumping has just gone up another gear, and he can stay, so we might just have a Gold Cup horse on our hands," he said giddily.
That mightn't be the only blue-riband prospect in his Carlow yard with the versatile Benie Des Dieux (9/2) digging deep over a shorter than ideal 2m4f trip in the Grade One Mares' Hurdle to lower the colours of hot favourite Apple's Jade (1/2), saving bookmakers a small fortune as a result.
With a mares' chase not yet on the Festival agenda, Mullins opted to switch his seven-year-old to the smaller obstacles for the first time since coming to him from France and she didn't disappoint to secure her trainer victory in this race for the ninth time.
"After her first win I nick-named her 'Benie Des Douvan' when I saw what she could do. I don't know whether she is going to be as good as that but she's four from four for us now," the clear front runner for the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award said.
Mullins also produced Rathvinden (9/2) - in the capable hands of his son Patrick - to win the four-miler on a "fantastic day" but there was also plenty of heartache as the "still improving" Melon was touched off by Buveur D'Air in a pulsating Champion Hurdle finish.
The enigmatic Yorkhill was pulled up in the same race after running another shocker while yesterday may have marked the last time to see 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen run over 2m with Walsh adamant that the 'Machine' needs to step up in trip.
"Faugheen ran slow and I would imagine that it would be the three-mile race for him at Punchestown. He's like all of us - as we get older, we slow down a little bit - and he has slowed down considerably," Walsh said.
Buveur D'Air's battling victory saw him become the first horse since Hardy Eustace (2004/2005) to secure back-to-back Champion Hurdle wins and etch his place in Festival folklore. It marked a magnificent seven of Champion Hurdle victories for Henderson and owner JP McManus with the typically understated Limerick businessman delighted to notch his 53rd Festival win.
"I'm keeping up with Nicky!" he remarked before adding. "I have had many a battle on the racecourse with Joe Donnelly, the owner of Melon - he was a bookmaker, I was a punter and half a bookmaker, and at the time they felt more important than this winner today."
It was a difficult day for last year's top trainer Gordon Elliott with the likes of Jury Duty and Apple's Jade under-performing but a third-place finish from Mick Jazz in the Champion Hurdle and the same position for Mengli Khan in the Supreme show his string are ready to fire this week.
On the other hand, it was an historic day for Lizzie Kelly as she became the first professional female jockey to achieve success at the Festival when steering Coo Star Sivola (5/1 favourite) to victory in the Ultima Handicap Chase in front of 66,019 racegoers.