Irish trainers hoping to kick on after fine Cheltenham Festival start

Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Gavin Cromwell Chelt

Gavin Cromwell celebrates after Mark Walsh and Espoir D'allen win in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. Cheltenham Festival. Photo: Patrick McCann/Racing Post 12.03.2019

On a day when the highs easily outnumbered the lows, Irish-trained runners made a fantastic start to the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, winning four of the seven races on Tuesday.

Gavin Cromwell and Mark Walsh recorded the biggest win of their careers, Rachael Blackmore was credited with her first Cheltenham Festival success and Willie Mullins landed a double, the champion trainer robbed of a third success when Benie Des Dieux crashed out at the final flight in the Mares’ hurdle when holding a commanding advantage.

If Gavin Cromwell felt like shouting from the rooftops that he had just trained his first winner at the Festival, and in no less a race than the £450,000 Unibet Champion Hurdle, he was going to say it quietly. The softly-spoken trainer, originally a farrier by trade, sent out 16/1 chance Espoir D'Allen to land the opening afternoon’s feature and Mark Walsh’s mount did it in style, becoming the first five-year-old to land the prize since Katchit in 2008.

In the colours of JP McManus, Espoir D'Allen scored by all of 15 lengths and a neck from last year's runner-up Melon, trained by Willie Mullins, and rank outsider Silver Streak. The three horses which headed the market, failed to make the places - dual winner Buveur D'Air fell at the third, Mullins’ Laurina was fourth and 7/4 favourite Apple's Jade only sixth for Gordon Elliott.

Navan-based Cromwell, “I am lost for words. Espoir D'Allen is French-bred and they do mature earlier. He has been winning Grade 3s this season, so to go and do that is fantastic. He wouldn't stand out in the string on his work, but he's a gorgeous-looking horse. I have three horses for JP McManus and about 50 in total, but not many graded horses.  

“Charlie Swan [who won three Unibet Champion Hurdles on Istabraq for McManus] found the horse in France and he came to me after winning a juvenile bumper over there. I had a call from JP's team to say I had a horse coming to me in a couple of weeks, and it was this one. JP has been very good to me and sent me Jer's Girl, who won a couple of Grade 1 races - it's great to be able to repay him.

“I started training a few point-to-pointers and enjoyed it, and it went from there. We'll still do a little bit of farriery because it's the only way to make it pay. You need 145 horses otherwise. The game is full of talented trainers and better trainers than me - right the way through from the point-to-point ranks to the top of the game there are some brilliant trainers in Ireland.”

Clane jockey Mark Walsh said, “Everything went well for me on Espoir D'Allen. When Buveur D'Air fell at the third hurdle, I luckily avoided the fall and got a lovely run through the whole way. For a five-year-old to do that against what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdles run in the past few years, he is a right little horse. It is unbelievable. He is the first five-year-old since Katchit to win the race and hopefully there will be a few more Champion Hurdles in him yet.

“He travelled very strongly, and he gave me a dream ride. Espoir D'Allen very uncomplicated and we were delighted when we saw the rain come this morning as he travels a lot better in this slower ground. Me and Gavin spoke before the race and the plan was to ride him for a place - we got a place, it was first place! I was in front soon enough and I heard a horse coming but only realised after the last that it was a loose horse. This win will take a while to sink in. It's back to work now but it was brilliant to land this event."

Rachael Blackmore opened her festival account in the Close Brothers Handicap Chase on the Henry de Bromhead-trained A Plus Tard to become only the 15th female jockey and only the third professional female jockey, to win at the Cheltenham Festival. The five-year-old recorded an impressive success to justify 5/1 favouritism in the £70,000 Listed event, a sixth winner at the meeting for his trainer.

Blackmore said, “He has won incredibly well. When Duc Des Genievres won the Arkle, that was franking my form, but I never thought I would be coming up that hill like that. It's unbelievable. The race went perfectly.

“Henry de Bromhead has put a lot of faith in me this week, considering I had never ridden a Festival winner; he's put me up on a lot of them, including in Grade 1s, and I'm very grateful to him. It's phenomenal. He's been extremely good to me all year and this is a very nice horse for the future.

“Cheltenham has its own kind of atmosphere and pressure attached to it but Henry left it up to me and gave me very easy instructions. He was going to be able to blame me if it didn't go right! To be honest, I was never winning with that margin in my mind. It's fantastic to get a winner here - it's what every jockey dreams about and I'm just so grateful to get to ride a horse like him and just steer him up the hill.”

Willie Mullins was desperately unlucky not to have come away with three winners after Benie Des Dieux fell at the last in the Mares' Hurdle when seemingly having matters under control. The champion trainer had made the best possible start to the week when taking the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with the Ruby Walsh-ridden Klassical Dream which scored a four and a half-length success.

While Walsh couldn’t add to his now 59-winner tally at the Festival, Mullins notched up his 63rd success when Duc Des Genievres slammed the opposition in the Arkle Chase, scoring by all of 13 lengths in the hands of the season’s leading jockey Paul Townend. It was a ninth winner at the meeting for the Corkman.

Wexford amateur Jamie Codd advertised his brilliance on the big stage yet again, when guiding the Ben Pauling-trained Le Breuil to win the final race of the day, the National Hunt Chase. He got the better of the Paul Nolan-trained Discorama by half-a-length to record his eighth Cheltenham Festival success. 

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