Joy of six as Quevega goes down in history
Quevega made history with a sixth successive win in the OLBG Mares Hurdle – but Ulster's Glens battling Melody pushed her stable companion all the way.
Willie Mullins trains both and a Quevega success would beat the legendary Golden Millar's record of five wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (1932-36) in addition to winning the Aintree Grand National in 19 34.
Running to the last flight of hurdles and having jumped that with zest, Glens Melody – owned and bred by Fiona McStay from Newry – looked the likely winner for the Irish Champion trainer despite a 14/1 and seen as a second string only for Ruby Walsh to rally the game Quevega to prevail by three parts of a length.
Walsh said of the winner: "She's a great little mare and that was the quickest ground she's ran on. I was fairly tanking off the home turn and I was thinking I might not get Glens Melody back, but she was good. To come back here six times and do it, she's 10 years of age – she has everything. It's some performance from Willie to keep bringing her back and minding her and nursing her. It's nice to be part of history.
"When they ask who won the most races at the Festival, it will be Quevega and I can say I rode her. I thought going to the last I'd win. Paul (Townend, on Glens Melody) was quicker than I was, but I knew halfway up (the run-in) I was going to get him. She's a terrier and she has a wonderful attitude."
Mullins said: "I was delighted for the connections of Glens Melody but I've never been as disappointed looking at what she was beating.
"It was fantastic the way she turned it round in the last 200 yards, she is so brave and keeps pulling it out.
"It's way up there, fantastic. I love Quevega and to do that was one of our missions coming here, to get her there, and I'm happy now for the week.
"She's a superstar. I'm so pleased for her and her connections – she has her own place in history now here."
Asked about a potential bid for a seventh Mares' Hurdle victory in 12 months' time, Mullins said: "We might be too greedy coming back for that.
"We'll have to get her home and think about it. We'll see.
"I was disappointed with Hurricane Fly but everything else from here on this week is a bonus. I'm more than happy to have won what we have."
Quevega's preparation for Cheltenham each year is unique, as it is invariably her first run of the season before going on to Punchestown.
Mullins explained: "The breeder told me when she was five that she would get better with age and that her mother wasn't at her best until she was nine.
"Veterinary advice was telling us to put her to stud and I sent her up to Ned Gowing and said that I wanted her back as a racemare – we are not in the breeding game – and he told me what to do.
"He treated her and told me the way to train her, so a lot of this achievement is down to him. He put her right for me the first year and we just follow the same procedure every year."
Townend said: "I'm not sure I'd have been allowed back in the yard if I'd have won!
"My mare has run an absolute cracker and handled the quicker ground no problem."
L'Unique's rider Robert Thornton said: "She's run an absolute blinder and is a good mare on her day.
"Nice ground is the key to her and she also comes to herself at this time of year. She just looked so much better in her skin today.
"I'm trying to persuade Alan (King) to take her to France."
The quicker ground would not have suited Glens Melody, whose best efforts have been on soft/heavy but the locally owned horse ran a brilliant race and is officially rated 25lb inferior to her stable mate.
Former jump jockey, Micky Gillan – Racing & Stud Manager to the Newry owner/breeder – advised: "Fiona [who was having her first Cheltenham Festival runner] will be delighted with that.
"The ground was better than her previous best form when she won the Grade 1 EBF Mares Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last year – it's brilliant to finish second to Quevega, who has now won an amazing six times at the Festival and Fiona will be adding Glens Melody to the broodmare band here at the stud."
Last year's Pertemps Final hero Holywell and jockey Richie McLernon were Festival heroes again as they teamed up to take the Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase.
Jonjo O'Neill's 10-1 shot battled stoutly up the hill to get the better of Ma Filleule by a length and three quarters.
McLernon said: "This lad has got a home for life with me if he needs it!
"He was dynamite. He jumped brilliantly and travelled – I took him some places and he got me out of them.
"He has a great trainer, the best in England and Ireland – he's brilliant and gifted."
O'Neill said: "He's a great little horse to come back here and do that. It's magic (to get a Cheltenham winner)."
Midnight Prayer claimed top honours in the Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase for trainer Alan King and amateur rider Joshua Newman.
The 8-1 chance moved sweetly throughout the four-mile test and saw off leading fancy Shotgun Paddy by a neck.
There was a dramatic finish in the concluding Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase as 8-1 shot Present View had to survive a stewards' inquiry before being named Jamie Snowden's first Festival winner under Brendan Powell.
Snowden said: "It was a ludicrous ride from the second jockey and our horse won on merit. We're very lucky to have him and it's a massive team effort."