The most eagerly awaited horse racing festival of the season kicked off in epic fashion as a score of hot favourites romped home on the first day of the festival, which saw a piece of history made when Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle. Willie Mullins, the most successful trainer at Cheltenham with 72 wins to his name before the off in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, upped his tally with a win for Appreciate It and was a nose away from adding a second win in the Mare’s Hurdle when Concertista was pipped on the line by Black Tears – irony aplenty.
Appreciate It and Shishkin take the plaudits
All the talk before the festival may have been surrounding Gordon Elliot and his photo controversy, but come the time of the Supreme Novices Hurdle all focus was on the turf. The run-up to the festival was dominated by the bets coming in for Envoi Allen following his switch to the De Bromhead yard, but on race day the trainer’s sights were set on Ballyadam pipping the Willie Mullins trained Appreciate It to the Supreme Novices title. It was not to be, though Ballyadam was in the mix throughout Appreciate It showed his class when he upped his game two fences out and ended up 15 lengths ahead of his rival.
The bookies priced Shishkin as the heavy favourite before the off, with odds of 1/2 (1.5, -200) the best you could find without special price boosts. The Nicky Henderson trained gelding rode by Nico de Boinville went 12 lengths clear of nearest rival Eldorado Allen, who Shishkin also beat on the pair’s last run out at Doncaster in January. The soft going in Gloucestershire was perfect for the seven year old, who upped the pace three out to race clear of the chasing pack.
Rachael Blackmore makes history on Honeysuckle
Rachel Blackmore loves Cheltenham. In 2019 she landed her first Festival winner on A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, a horse that she rides to challenge for the Gold Cup on the festival’s final day. The Irish jockey, who came second to Paul Townend in the Irish Jockey Championship last season, made history at Cheltenham today when she became the first female jockey to ride the Champion Hurdle winner. Honeysuckle’s best price of 6/4 (2.4, +150) favourite with 888 Sport shortened into 11/10 before the off, and Blackmore’s ride justified his tag as Honeysuckle quickened the pace from two out and left second favourite Epatante and 11/1 runner up Sharjah in his wake. With more rides to come on some big horses, not least A Plus Tard in Friday’s showpiece event, it was the perfect Grade 1 start for Blackmore and De Bromhead.
There was some respite for the bookies, when Sean Flanagan brought Noel Meade’s 80/1 shot Jeff Kidder home to tear up Cheltenham betting guides in the Grade 3 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. 28/1 (29.0, +2800) shot Vintage Clouds overcame 10/3 (4.33, +333) favourite Happy Go Lucky by 5½ lengths Ultima Handicap Chase, with Ryan Mania on board for Sue Smith.
The bookies also breathed a sigh of relief In the final Grade 1 race of the day, the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Heavy favourite Concertista, trained by Mullins, ridden by Paul Townend and famed for strong finishing, looked set to clinch the title only to be beaten by 11/1 outsider Black Tears by a nose on the line. Had the course been just a length shorter Townend would have taken it, but Black Tears was ridden hard by youngster Jack Kennedy to pip its rival on the line. It was the first of two Victories for Kennedy, who also raced clear on Galvin in the final race of the day, the Grade 2 National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase to give the Irish jockey a great start as he bids for top jockey.