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Cheltenham Festival: Winners on the opening day at Cheltenham

Nick Murphy | 10 March 2015

Shocks and legends open the meeting

The Cheltenham Festival is fast approaching. And we’ve decided to look back on five of most notable opening day’s at the meeting from year’s gone by.

Featuring a couple of legends and a couple of shocks, the opening day of the Festival has always been one of the most exciting in the sport.

Labaik – 2017 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

The opening race of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival was expected to be a straight shootout between the Willie Mullins-trained Melon and the Nigel Twiston-Davies’ saddled Ballyandy. But no-one counted on Labaik.

Gordon Elliott’s charge was making only his second start of the season after finishing 100l sixth to Forge Meadow on his reappearance at Naas. Three times the previous season the French-bred raider had refused to race. Yet in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Labaik made his presence felt. The grey was ridden along quietly towards the back of the field before making his move approaching the last hurdle. Despite blundering through, the Irish-trained star accelerated past Melon to secure a shock 25/1 success to open the Festival.

Glens Melody – 2015 OLGB Mares’ Hurdle

This is a race best remembered not for the eventual winner, but for a final hurdle faller. Annie Power was sent off as 1/2 favourite to complete a four-timer for trainer Willie Mullins on the opening day of the Festival. Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen had already obliged for the Irishman and punters across the UK alike. Victory for the favourite in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle was about to cost the bookmaking industry £50m.

The favourite set off in fine fettle before taking the lead three out as the runners approached the bend. She extended her lead to three lengths before clattering the final hurdle with her front hoof and going down with Ruby Walsh on-board. With Annie Power out of the picture, 6/1 shot Glens Melody got home by a head from Polly Peachum on the near-side for one of the biggest opening race shocks in Cheltenham history.

Champagne Fever – 2013 Supreme Novices Hurdle

On the morning to the start of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, there were anxious moments with freezing temperatures dropping as low as -12c but thankfully, it warmed up sufficiently and the frost covers deployed did their trick with racing only delayed by 35 minutes. With that extra time to tick over, it was worth the wait for punters.

The horse that had garnered the most attention in the build up was My Tent Or Yours, fresh for a highly impressive win in the Betfair Hurdle a month earlier at Newbury. He was heavily backed and sent off the 15/8 favourite. Beforehand, talk was about whether he would handle the undulating track of Cheltenham. His main dangers looked to be the same owner’s Jezki and the previous year’s bumper winner Champagne Fever for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.

In the end, it was Champagne Fever who obliged under one of the finest front running rides in the history of Cheltenham with Ruby Walsh dictating a pace that suited his mount and he gamely outbattled My Tent Or Yours up the hill to start the week with an Irish winner.

Istabraq – 2000 Champion Hurdle

One of the greatest two mile hurdlers ever to grace Cheltenham makes the list in Istabraq. Any of his three victories could make the list but his final success where he broke the track record was possibly his most breathtaking. Sent off a shade of odds on at 8/15f and on the fastest ground he encountered at the Festival, he went round like the proverbial good thing under Charlie Swan and when he pushed the button, the response was immediate, thrashing the previous year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle and future Champion Hurdle winner Hors La Loi III by four lengths.

Sadly he never had the chance to go for a fourth Champion Hurdle success due to the foot and mouth crisis. When he returned the following year, he never showed an interest and was pulled up after the second flight to an ovation similar to what Kauto Star achieved when he was pulled up in the 2012 Gold Cup.

Unsinkable Boxer – 1998 Unicorn Homes Gold Card Handicap Hurdle Final

Handicaps are a huge part of the Festival and the next two entries are two that are still spoken about to this very day from the last twenty years.

Unsinkable Boxer came into the Unicorn Homes Gold Card Handicap Hurdle (now known as the Pertemps Final) after going up thirty five pounds in three months having gone to Martin Pipe in December 1997. He won a novice handicap hurdle at Plumpton by eight lengths before winning another two novice hurdles at Fontwell and Doncaster pulling carts.

As Tony McCoy got the leg up on the horse, he turned to Martin Pipe and asked him how he should ride the horse. The answer?

“Anyway you want. This is the biggest certainty ever to go out on a racecourse!”

A bold statement for a 24 runner handicap!

To cut to the chase, the horse won by four lengths when it could easily have been a lot further. The horse went on to win the Sefton Novice Hurdle at Aintree but sadly his career didn’t go much further as he was plagued with injuries.

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