It didn’t come as the biggest surprise this week to see the famous green and gold colours of JP McManus cross the line in front in this afternoon’s feature Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, but few punters had reckoned on his owner’s second string Espoir D’Allen (16/1) lifting the crown in tremendous fashion.
Providing his legendary owner/gambler with a remarkable eighth win in the big race, the Gavin Cromwell-trained five-year-old travelled supremely well throughout the two-mile championship race, having done well to avoid trouble when McManus’ dual champion hurdler Buveur D’Air fell early on in the race, bringing down Sharjah in the melee.
Last year’s runner-up Melon (20/1) raced to the fore and was still in front having seen off both Laurina and the disappointing 7/4 favourite Apple’s Jade as they headed towards two from home, but Mark Walsh on Espoir D’Allen powered clear up the hill to beat Melon by a massive 15 lengths. Evan Williams‘ 80/1 rank outsider Silver Streak only just failed to get up for second but ran the race of his life to finish in the frame.
Willie Mullins, who trains Melon, had earlier made a blistering start to the meeting, landing the opening Grade 1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with the well backed Ruby Walsh-ridden Klassical Dream (6/1). Just over half an hour later the County Carlow-based handler followed up when his 5/1 shot Duc Des Genievres won by a facile 13 lengths under Paul Townend in the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Novices’ Chase.
Nicky Henderson opened his account for the meeting when Beware The Bear (10/1) stayed on bravely to land the Grade 3 Ultima Handicap Chase, beating Sue Smith‘s Vintage Clouds (16/1) by a length-and-a-quarter.
The race after the Champion Hurdle featured many people’s banker of the week Benie Des Deux (10/11f). Ridden by Ruby Walsh and trained by Willie Mullins, she looked to be heading for a second successive win in the Grade 1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle when clear at the last. A tough day for punters got even tougher though as she crumpled on landing handing a shock victory to Roksana (10/1), trained by Dan Skelton and ridden by his brother, Harry.
Leading Irish lady rider Rachael Blackmore landed her first Cheltenham Festival success aboard Henry de Bromhead‘s A Plus Tard (5/1f) in the listed Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, while the concluding Grade 2 National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase went the way of Ben Pauling‘s Le Breuil (14/1), ridden by Jamie Codd, who just edged out the gallant Discorama in a race where only four of the 18 starters completed the course.