Rain gives way to tears from punters as bookies take lead at Cheltenham
The torrential rain at the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival gave way to floods of tears as punters faced a battering at the hands of the bookies.
The collective groan that echoed around Prestbury Park when hotly fancied Benie Des Dieux crashed out at the last fence in the Mares Hurdle summed up the opening day for the travelling Irish hordes.
The bookmakers were rubbing their hands in glee as a number of beaten favourites saw punters hit for more than €5m.
Despite the inclement weather, and the even more hostile results, the thousands of Irish pilgrims made sure to make the most of the fun and festivities.
"It's been an absolute belter of a day," said Sean Murphy (33), from Lucan, Dublin.
"I was well prepared for the rain so it didn't bother me in the slightest," he said.
It was a bittersweet day for racehorse owner Jo Coleman who travelled to the festival from her home in Essex with her late husband's ashes.
John Coleman died last summer from bone marrow cancer, but his wife was so keen to fulfil his wish of seeing Klassical Dream run that she carried some of his ashes in her handbag.
"It seems such a shock to be here to see John's horse run, let alone win," she said.
"He bought Klassical Dream two years ago and dreamed he might be a good horse, and he's proved it. He never got to see the horse run at all.
"I didn't really watch the race, I just listened to the boys around me getting more and more excited as the race went on. I was too nervous to watch.
"John was a Willie Mullins fanatic, which is why he put his horses with Willie. I don't know if I can put into words how I feel, but it has blown our minds. I've bought some of John's ashes with me because he said he wanted to be here, but he knew his time was limited. I wanted to make sure he got here," she said.
For Waterford student Emma Rogers (21) her first Cheltenham experience was worth the tedious racing lectures her dad had given her.
"I've only made £7 (€8) backing Aramon in an each-way bet, but it's better than nothing," she said.
"When my dad found out I was going to Cheltenham with my boyfriend, he actually sat me down and went through all the best horses to back. Hopefully he's not expecting too much," she laughed.
For most people who studied the form going into this year's festival it was to be a chastening experience as the vast majority of favourites did not stand up to expectations.
Things got off to a promising start as Carlow-based trainer Mullins kicked off proceedings with a double.
However, things quickly turned sour with 16/1 shot Espoir D'Allen landing the Champion Hurdle, which came at a massive cost to punters when the top three in the betting finished unplaced.
Then Ruby Walsh's fortunes took a terrible turn for the worse when lightning struck twice in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle as Benie Des Dieux came crashing down at the last, along with the fortunes of many Irish punters.
A half-hour later, Rachael Blackmore, who was immortalised with a 25ft statue at the entrance to the racecourse this week, won her first ever race at the festival on A Plus Tard and earned favourite backers a bundle at 5/1.
"But with the two main horses, Ballyward and Ok Corral, having no luck in the final race, it's fair to say the bookies are 1-0 up after day one," said Rachael Kane, spokesperson for Paddy Power.
But it definitely wasn't a bad day for one punter from Kerry whose €2 placepot returned an astronomical six-figure jackpot. The BoyleSports customer, who wishes to remain anonymous, correctly predicted placed horses in the first six races.
With a dividend of €91,283.90, the €2 stake triggered a total payout of €182,567.80.
Meanwhile, for the first time in 10 years, today's Cheltenham races may be called off due to dangerous wind speeds of up to 70kmh.
Cheltenham management has now called a precautionary inspection ahead of today's racing, which will take place at 8am. If today's racing does not go ahead, it will be postponed to Saturday.
A reminder that you can get all the behind-the-scenes action from the 2019 Cheltenham Festival with Michael Verney over on the Independent Sport Instagram page.