Belfast Telegraph

Irish eyes smiling at Cheltenham

Luck went with the Irish on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival.

With thousands of punters descending on the Gloucestershire town from the Emerald Isle, County Meath-born jockey Barry Geraghty won the top race of the day, the Stan James Champion Hurdle, on the Irish-trained and owned Jezki.

Owner J P McManus landed a notable 1-2 after the 9-1 chance produced a gutsy performance to win by a neck from My Tent Or Yours.

Ruby Walsh's 11-4 favourite Hurricane Fly - the 2011 and 2013 winner - was denied a third Champion Hurdle victory finishing fourth, behind The New One.

But the race was overshadowed by the death of Our Conor, who suffered a fatal injury in a heavy fall.

Jezki's victory means that McManus is now the most successful owner in the history of the Champion Hurdle with five wins.

"I am ecstatic about having the winner and the second," McManus said.

"It means an awful lot to me. For me, the National Hunt season is centred around the Champion Hurdle because I didn't have many Gold Cup horses and I am unlikely to win the Grand National.

"It was all about the Champion Hurdle and full marks to Nicky (Henderson), Jessie (Harrington) and Eddie Harty who had the horses looking in mint condition today, as all the other runners were. It was a credit to everybody and it's just a very special day."

Geraghty, 34, who is now unbeaten in five outings on Jezki, said: "He's a great little horse. He had good form and he didn't have a lot to find with the best of them. I don't think his price reflected his chance.

"It was also a great run by the runner-up. I'm sure J P will be delighted with the first two home. The runner-up was getting to me, I needed the line."

There was more success for Ireland when Walsh, from County Kildare, rode the Willie Mullins-trained Vautour to win the opening race of the festival.

The duo scored a double when 8/11 favourite Quevega extended her record by winning the Mares' Hurdle for the sixth successive year.

Mullins said: "She's a superstar. I'm so pleased for her and her connections - she has her own place in history now here."

Quevega's win now means that Walsh has ridden 40 Cheltenham victories consolidating his position as the Festival's most successful jockey.

The Irish have always been an integral part of the prestigious National Hunt Festival, which sees the best of Britain and Ireland's thoroughbred horses pitted against each other like no other meeting in the racing calendar.

Around 15,000 Irish racegoers attend the four-day meeting each day, almost equally divided between expats living in the UK and people crossing the Irish Sea.

Star-spotting can be a full-time occupation, with many celebrity race fans making the trip, including a plethora of royals, actors and sporting figures.

Among those enjoying the racing were royal couple Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall, Olympic gold medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes, model Katie Price and her husband Kieran Hayler, as well as Premier League footballers, including Swansea City's Jonathan De Guzman and Michel Vorm. Also spotted at the racecourse was former England footballer David Platt.

More than 200,000 pints of Guinness are expected to be drunk at Prestbury Park as around 235,000 people attend the four-day festival. Punters are expected to wager £250 million during the week.

The second day of the festival is traditionally Ladies Day, where women are renowned for donning stylish and glamorous outfits.

As well as prizes for the racing, there are awards for best dressed lady, best accessories and best hat, with an array of flamboyant head pieces, feathers and fascinators.

Other highlights during the week include the Queen Mother Champion Chase tomorrow, for which Sire De Grugy is favourite in the absence of racing's top-rated steeplechaser Sprinter Sacre.

The meeting builds up to the Gold Cup on Friday, 50 years on from the first of three triumphs in the race for legendary Irish steeplechaser Arkle.

The weather is expected to remain dry for the rest of the week, according to Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse.

"We have been jolly lucky as 12 months ago we were standing here on frost covers and it was more than 10C colder and we were wondering if the ground would come right," he said.

"It has been a mild but very wet winter. As we all remember, we had some very testing ground for the two race days here in January.

"But we are expecting the ground to dry out throughout the week as there is no rain forecast.

"The temperatures are forecast to rise during the week and reach 15C (59F) on Friday."

Police said the first day's racing passed peacefully with very few crimes reported.

There were three instances of pickpocketing and two of suspected counterfeit currency, Gloucestershire Police said.

One man was arrested in relation to handling counterfeit money.

Superintendent Jim McCarthy said: "Nearly 60,000 people have passed through the racecourse gates today and we're pleased to report that only one arrest has been necessary.

"This is thanks to the combined efforts of all the staff at the racecourse who are working together with the same aim of facilitating a safe and enjoyable festival.

"We'd like this good start to the week's festivities to continue into the evening and for those heading out to celebrate in the town centre, please stay safe, drink sensibly and be considerate to local residents."

A record crowd attended today's opening Champion Day with 57,098 - 814 more than last year - passing through the turnstiles.

Ian Renton, the Jockey Club's south west regional director, said: "I am really thrilled with such a strong crowd figure today.

"To be up 814 on the previous highest attendance for the opening day is really terrific.

"There was a great result in the Stan James Champion Hurdle with Jezki winning for JP McManus, Jessica Harrington and Barry Geraghty.

"We are all looking forward to three more days of the festival."


From Belfast Telegraph