Nichols Canyon sees it out best to take Stayers' Hurdle glory
Ruby Walsh conjured an irresistible run from Nichols Canyon to deny the gallant Lil Rockerfeller and lift the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle, the feature race on the third afternoon of the Cheltenham Festival.
Forming part of a spectacular four-timer on the card for Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins, the 10-1 winner was produced with a strong run towards the rail to land the spoils for owner Graham Wylie, already a three-time race victor with the great Inglis Drever.
It was only his second attempt at three miles, but the seven-year-old showed he had no problem getting the trip.
He was held up in the early stages as 2015 winner Cole Harden set a strong pace that had the field well strung out. When he faded out of contention, Lil Rockerfeller set sail for home, but Nichols Canyon was produced to lead on the run-in and score by three-quarters of a length.
Unowhatimeanharry, the 5-6 favourite, was three and a half lengths away in third .
Wylie said: "When I told Willie to buy a horse for me, he rang me up and said 'I think I've found you the next Inglis Drever'.
"He looks like Inglis Drever as he's only a pony, but he flew up the hill. Ruby told me he'd ride him like that to make sure he got the trip. It wasn't until approaching the last I thought he might get placed, never mind win.
"With the problems with Faugheen and Annie Power we thought he'd be a Champion Hurdle horse, but it hasn't gone right. It's only been the last two weeks he's started to show anything, but this is great. Willie is a genius."
Mullins said: "It was some performance. I didn't particularly think the three miles would suit.
"But he learned to settle and Ruby got him settled out the back door and that made a difference. I imagine we were a little fortunate, too, as Ruby came over and got the rail and all the other horses were all at sea coming up the middle, but you take what you get.
"He is tough, I just thought he would be too keen over that trip. With age, a lot of these horses learn to settle.
"His last bit of work I thought we would change his stable and work rider. Sometimes when horses are not doing anything you just change things for the sake of changing them.
"He always works a bit dead so we decided to change his routine to see if that worked."
Walsh said: "He's a little warrior. He switched off, he jumped and we just crept away. Lil Rockerfeller was battling back at me but he kept going all the way to the line.
"He just started to come back to himself the last 10 days, Katie (Walsh) rode him at the Curragh the other day and said he worked very well. I'm delighted for Graham and Andrea (Wylie), this race means a lot to them."
Neil King, trainer of Lil Rockerfeller, said: "He's run a superb race and, to be honest, I thought he had it won. Trevor (Whelan) had him in the right place at the right time and the horse jumped beautifully.
"He's as tough as they come and every run this season has been a career-best apart from the Cleeve Hurdle, when he came back sick. He travelled through the race so well today and we're all very proud of him.
"We'll think about Punchestown now and after such a good run today, why not think about coming back for the Stayers' Hurdle next year? We have schooled him over fences and he's schooled well, so chasing is an option."
Frank Berry, owner JP McManus' racing manager, said of Harry Fry's market leader: "He ran well, but he wasn't good enough. There are no excuses."
Asked whether he'll run again this season, he added: "We'll see how he comes out of it."
Warren Greatrex said of Cole Harden, who was fourth: "He will always try his heart out and I can't say a lot more.
"He's done what he's always done and has been beaten less than last year. I just wish Simon Claisse (clerk of the course) would not water on a Wednesday, but that might just be me being a bit bitter.
"You could see it (the ground) slowed him down, but he comes back and does it year in, year out."