Friday 14th March – Day 1 – saw a fabulous start to The Festival at Cheltenham, 2023.
Reporting by Graham Clark, Nick Seddon, Catherine Austen & Andrew King (TV quotes by Lucy Elder). Photographs courtesy of Ian Yates www.eyewhy.co.uk
Amateur Jockey Michael O’Sullivan and Owner-Trainer Barry Connell combine to land opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The Cheltenham Festival in 2023 began with an impressive success for Marine Nationale (9/2) in the Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Partnered by 23-year-old amateur Michael O’Sullivan, who graduated last year from University College Dublin with a degree in animal science, the six-year-old was delivered with a perfectly-timed challenge to overhaul 9/4 Favourite Facile Vega after the final flight before going on to score by three and three-quarter lengths.
Winning jockey Michael O’Sullivan said: “I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid. I suppose it is surreal and it won’t sink in.
“You could nearly say the Supreme is the biggest race of the week as it is the first – I’m very lucky and it is a great thrill.”
Winning owner-trainer Barry Connell said: “How do you think it feels? Best feeling of all time! I put a lot of pressure on myself, saying he was the best horse I’ve ever had. He’s very, very quick.
“Look, he’s got every attribute you want. I’ve said before, if you want to win a G1 in Cheltenham, you need four attributes. You need a quick horse – it’s an undulating track, a tight track, and you want to be able to hold his position. You want to be a very good jumper. You want a very good temperament, which he has, you saw him walking round the paddock like a sheepdog beforehand. Plus you need guts, stamina to stay up the hill, and he’s got all them in spades.
“We’re absolutely blessed to have found the next superstar of the weighing-room in Michael O’Sullivan. You mark his name. Did you ever see a cooler ride in Cheltenham? Unbelievable.
“Michael O’Sullivan was champion novice point to point rider. He hasn’t come from the flapping pony racing field, he’s come from proper horsemen. And he’s a thinker, a very smart guy.
“If you gave me any jockey, I wouldn’t swap him.”
1.30pm Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y
- Marine Nationale 9/2
- Facile Vega 9/4F
- Diverge 25/1
1st winner at The Festival for jockey Mr Michael O’Sullivan
1st winner at The Festival as a trainer for Barry Connell
3rd winner at The Festival as an owner for Barry Connell
Willie Mullins off the mark in 2023 as El Fabiolo lands Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase
It did not take long for The Festival’s winning-most trainer of all time to saddle his 89th Festival winner when El Fabiolo justified 11/10 Favouritism in the Grade One Sky Bet Arkle Novices’ Chase.
Partnered by Paul Townend, the six-year-old was in front from the second fence and went on to score by five and a half lengths from Jonbon.
Willie Mullins said: “That was nice. He travelled as well as we were hoping he would the whole way and Paul [Townend] said he hit a flat spot down the back somewhere but then when he picked him up he came alive under him and he was very happy until pecking at the last.
“It was a bit (heart in mouth at the last) but all being well he looked like he had enough in reserve at that stage and he did so I’m very happy for him. It was [nice to exact revenge on Jonbon] and this is the place to do it.”
Paul Townend said: “I was half afraid Danny [Mullins, on Dystart Dynamo] was getting a bit of a freebie at one point – Danny’s very dangerous in front; my lad likes to get on with it and he wasn’t getting an easy time, either.
“The ground is testing and it is taking a bit of getting, so when I was left on my own he got a little idle round the back, but when I wanted him to race, he came alive for me. He’s not the most natural of jumpers, but at every fence he knows where his feet are and he gets away with it.
“I think he’d have no problem getting further. He’s growing up physically and mentally, so there’s be a lot of options.”
Winning joint-owner Simon Munir told ITV racing: “It means everything. We’ve won the race before with Footpad and we saw what we expected to see, but of course what you expect is often not what you see in the afternoon at racing.”
Fellow joint-owner Isaac Souede said: “He is an athlete. That horse is really an athlete. You can see the power of him, so we are very excited about him.”
2.10pm Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) 2m
- El Fabiolo 11/10F
- Jonbon 2/1
- Saint Roi 11/1
24th winner at The Festival for jockey Paul Townend
89th winner at The Festival for trainer Willie Mullins
5th winner at The Festival for owner Simon Munir/Isaac Souede
Corach Rambler becomes fourth dual winner of Ultima Handicap Chase to leap to head of market for Randox Grand National
Corach Rambler (6/1 Joint-Favourite) became the fourth dual winner of the Ultima Handicap Chase when repeating his 2022 victory in the three miles and a furlong contest on Champion Day at The Festival.
Partnered once again by Derek Fox, the nine-year-old came from off the pace to get up and score by a neck from Fastorslow.
Winning trainer Lucinda Russell said: “As emotional as Scu [Peter Scudamore] and I are, the horse isn’t emotional. He just loves it round here. It’s phenomenal. It’s funny – I was so nervous beforehand because the horse means so much and everyone knows that, but Scu and I went in to speak to Derek [Fox], and he was so calm and cool. He said he’d just ride the same as last year – it’s just amazing.
“He’s got a brilliant mind. I think the horse has got quite an interesting mind, but I thought he travelled a bit better relatively close to the pace this time. I am just so proud of him today and so pleased for Scu. To hear that he’s favourite for the Grand National is amazing.”
Winning jockey Derek Fox said: “He is a tremendous horse and has been a marvellous horse to me to get two winners here along with all the other races he has won along the way. I feel very lucky to be riding him as he is a very talented horse. Thanks to Lucinda and Scu for giving me these opportunities. I’m really looking forward to that now (Grand National). He stays well and I think he will run a massive race in that. I’m just delighted with today.”
Reflecting on how close he is to the horse at home, Peter Scudamore, partner of winning trainer Lucinda Russell, told ITV Racing: “He is an extraordinary character, you can see in everything about him.”
On Derek Fox, he added: “People ride in different styles, he’s more like Fitzy [Mick Fitzgerald] than he is you [Sir AP McCoy] in style. I’m not being mean to Derek, when he first came to us he couldn’t read, he learnt to read off text messages on his phone, but he has always had an innate sense of a horse – he’s highly intelligent when he gets on a horse and he uses it. He reads now, we joke about books and stuff, he’s a highly intelligent man.”
2.50pm Ultima Handicap Chase (Premier Handicap) 3m1f
- Corach Rambler 6/1 JF
- Fastorslow 7/1
- Monbeg Genius 6/1 JF
- The Goffer 7/1
2nd winner at The Festival for jockey Derek Fox
3rd winner at The Festival for trainer Lucinda Russell
Corach Rambler becomes the fourth dual winner of the Ultima Handicap Chase after Sentina (1957, 1958), Scot Lane (1982, 1983) and Un Temps Pour Tout (2016, 2017).
Constitution Hill lives up to his billing to become shortest-priced winner ever of Unibet Champion Hurdle
Constitution Hill truly matched his reputation when coming home a hugely-impressive winner of the 93rd running of the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Returned the 4/11 Favourite, he is the shortest-priced winner of the Champion Hurdle in its history.
Partnered by Nico de Boinville, the result was never in doubt as the six-year-old Blue Bresil gelding travelled supremely well throughout and went clear on the home turn to win as he liked by nine lengths.
Winning trainer Nicky Henderson said: “He can be very long. You can do anything with this horse. You could jump a fence, you could go three miles. He has had six races now and has barely come off the bridle, but it won’t last forever so let’s enjoy it while we have got it. Sprinter [Sacre] did amazing things for us and the emotion behind him for his comeback was unbelievable. This horse has got into those echelons after six races. It is an extraordinary thing to happen but he is an extraordinary horse. He is a freak.
“This horse is going to extraordinary levels at the moment and we are lucky to be the custodian of him but a lot of responsibility goes with it.”
The successful jockey Nico de Boinville said: “The past year has been great. Obviously, you wanted to get through all the preliminary races – the Fighting Fifth, we had a great reception up there, then the Christmas Hurdle. And in actual fact two weeks before coming into this I decided to switch off [all media] – it was just white noise and it was just getting ridiculous, everyone was talking about it. We thought we’d just focus on ourselves and on what was going on at Seven Barrows. Sean who rides him every day has done a fantastic job, the guvnor [Nicky Henderson] has got him in great order. I think he has proved to everyone what a fabulous racehorse he is.
“It was all very smooth today. You saw him – as soon as he got to the front, he pricked his ears and said, ‘come on, let’s go, go and do the business’. He’s so straightforward and these Blue Bresils, they seem to bring that element of attitude to the game. He takes it all in his stride – he’s so relaxed.”
Successful owner Michael Buckley said: “I first came here when I was 19 when the three big races were the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup and I never thought I’d own a horse let alone have runner in this or have a winner in this. I can’t say I’ve had a better day on the racecourse ever.”
Former jockey Barry Geraghty rode a joint-record four Champion Hurdle winner. He also sold Constitution Hill to owner Michael Buckley. He said: “That was my scariest moment at Cheltenham. I’ve been fine all the way then 15 minutes before the race it started hitting me. I don’t normally get anxious but I watched the race with Nicky, Sophie and Michael and that was magic.
“There was relief with every jump. He is brilliant at what he does but he is just so special. To see the crowds here shows that everyone has bought into him and he keeps delivering. There is no doubt he is very special but he is very special to everyone connected with him. I’ve had my kids all ride him at home and that is both unusual and different. It is surreal to watch him play with the opposition how he does. He is a real natural. He is trained by a genius and ridden by one too. Nico kept it so simple and that is not always the easiest thing to do at Cheltenham. He went out with a plan and he has stuck with it. You eliminate potential risks doing that and let the horse do the talking. It was a piece of magic.”
Charlie Swan, who partnered Istabraq to three Champion Hurdle wins (1998, 1999, 2000) said: “I thought it was amazing and he is an absolutely brilliant horse. He jumps brilliantly and Nico gave him a great ride. He had him in the right place. You can never compare eras, but I was glad he was not around when Istabraq was around. He looks a hell of a horse.
“You can see him doing what Istabraq did but it is very hard for them to do it. You have to keep them sound and keep them right and in good form. It is not an easy job. All the crowd think you just turn up next year but it is not as easy as that as there is a lot of training involved but there couldn’t be a better man than Nicky to do it. We had nothing in the race but it definitely gave me goose bumps. I’m a good friend of Michael’s so I was delighted to see him win.”
3.30pm Unibet Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m ½f
- Constitution Hill 4/11F
- State Man 7/2
- Zanahiyr 66/1
16th winner at The Festival for jockey Nico de Boinville
73rd winner at The Festival for trainer Nicky Henderson
7th winner at The Festival for owner Michael Buckley
Record-extending ninth Unibet Champion Hurdle for trainer Nicky Henderson after See You Then (1985, 1986 and 1987), Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010), Buveur D’Air (2017 & 2018) and Epatante (2020).
Constitution Hill is the shortest-priced winner ever of the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Honeysuckle signs off her career with fourth Festival success
Honeysuckle (9/4 Joint-Favourite) signed off her career with a fourth Festival victory in the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. The nine-year-old previously won this race in 2020 as well as the Unibet Champion Hurdle in 2021 and 2022.
After this length and a half success over Love Envoi, she heads off to the paddocks as the winner of 17 of her 19 races.
Speaking to BBC News, winning trainer Henry de Bromhead said: “So many emotions (were going through my mind), it was ridiculous. It’s brilliant and she’s just such an incredible mare, we feel so privileged and lucky to have had anything to do with her. It just meant so much, you dream of a fairy-tale ending and it doesn’t normally happen, but it has here and she’s read the script.
“I’m pretty sure [it’s her final race], it’s not my call but I’m 99% sure. I’d prefer Kenny [Alexander] to say for sure though as he’s the owner. I’m pretty sure that’s it though and to go out like that is incredible.
“It’s just a massive result. We know Jack is always with us and I’m sure he was here on Rachael [Blackmore]’s shoulder. Honeysuckle has been a huge part of our life and Jack just adored her – so she as much did it for him as she did for all of us.
“Rachael and Honey are two divas together and I’m going to keep saying that now as it really annoys Rachael! The two divas together. Rachael is class and she gave her a super ride. She’s an amazing lady and I’m very lucky to have her.”
Winning jockey Rachael Blackmore told ITV Racing: “We all wish a very special kid [Jack de Bromhead, the winning trainer’s son who was killed in a pony racing accident last year] could be here today, but he’s watching down on us.
“She is unbelievable. The way Henry has produced her every day is phenomenal.
“She’s just a phenomenal mare, she’s been incredible for my career, for everyone down in Knockeen who have looked after her over the years, Henry’s head lad David Roche does an unbelievable job with all the horses. She’s just a credit to everyone. Kenny is one of the coolest owners you’ll ever ride for and it’s a brilliant day.”
Winning owner Kenny Alexander said: “She hasn’t been running badly and I’ve kept saying that, she’s just not quite as good as she was last year. I’ve never said that she’s the greatest champion hurdler ever – and the winner of the last race may well turn out to be that – but I think she’s got to be one of the bravest. She’s got guts beyond belief and a tremendous winning attitude. She’s incredibly talented and today was just amazing, she had to tough it out but it was amazing.
“She’s retired now and I’ve had an absolute blast owning her. I’m lost for words to be honest, the celebration was out of control. If you can’t lose it a bit after winning a race like that though, you probably shouldn’t own racehorses!
“It just shows you how great the sport is when she’s getting a cheer like that. They don’t love me, that’s for sure! They may love Rachael and even Henry a bit, but they really love that horse.”
4.10pm Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 4f
- Honeysuckle 9/4JF
- Love Envoi 11/1
- Queens Brook 16/1
13th winner at The Festival for jockey Rachael Blackmore
18th winner at The Festival for trainer Henry de Bromhead
5th winner at The Festival for owner Kenny Alexander
103.5/1 double for O’sullivan as Jazzy Matty wins Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
After a few near misses earlier on the card, Gordon Elliott finally found himself in the winner’s circle after 18/1 chance Jazzy Matty got the better of three-way battle for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
The four-year-old, partnered by conditional rider Michael O’Sullivan, edged out Byker and Risk Belle close home to score by a neck and a nose respectively. O’Sullivan was registering a 103.5/1 Champion Day double, following the success of Marine Nationale in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Michael O’Sullivan said: “Thanks very much to Gordon [Elliott] and the Browns for putting me on him. It’s great for them.
“He got a fright at the first hurdle and he was just very careful after that. I thought we went very slow and he’s a big horse, so I gave him plenty of room and he travelled everywhere for me. I knew coming to the last he was wrong but I didn’t want to confuse him because he was actually being careful up to then. I was confident enough I had plenty of horse left and I’d say he won with a bit in hand.
“Dad is amazing. I grew up listening to stories of him riding and how good he was – he rode a Festival winner and was a very accomplished amateur, and in fairness to Dad he never pushed me too much, but when he saw I had interest, he gave me every opportunity. He drove me all over the country and spent a lot of money sending me eventing and showjumping, and it’s great that it’s paying off. Dad kills himself with hard work at home on the farm, and it’s great that he’s here today.”
O’Sullivan’s father Willie, who rode the 1991 Foxhunter winner Lovely Citizen, told ITV Racing: “It’s unreal. I couldn’t be prouder. He’s worked very hard at his riding all his life and I couldn’t be happier for him. He really deserves it.”
Gordon Elliott said: “The horse has done well to win as he was stuck out a bit wider than was ideal in a tight race like that, but thankfully it made no difference in the end.
“There is every chance he will now go to Aintree as i think that course will suit him even better.”
4.50pm Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Premier Handicap) 2m½f
- Jazzy Matty 18/1
- Byker 6/1
- Risk Belle 10/1
- Sundial 18/1
2nd winner at The Festival for jockey Michael O’Sullivan
35th winner at The Festival for trainer Gordon Elliott
Record fourth National Hunt Chase success for Patrick Mullins on Galliard Du Mesnil
Patrick Mullins became the winning-most jockey in the modern era in the Grade Two WellChild National Hunt Chase when winning the 2023 renewal on Galillard du Mesnil, trained by his father Willie.
Mullins had previously been successful on Back In Focus (2013), Rathvinden (2018) and Stattler (2022).
Patrick Mullins said: “When I went out I said to myself that I’ve got the fastest horse in the race, my worry was that we’d run twice over two and a half miles from the front, so I wanted to drop out and get him settled.
“He was quite high over the white fences early on and he was just giving them a lot of air, so I just tried to keep him relaxed and then when we’ve turned up the hill I’ve looked up and seen Mahler Mission clear. We’d gone quick and my thought was that we’re going to have to try and catch him at the finish line rather than catch him at the second last. It worked out in the end so it was great.
“I’m not sure anyone has won this race four times! More often than not I’m riding the best horse in the race so it’s just good to get the job done.”
Willie Mullins said: “John McConnell’s horse [Mahler Mission] was very unlucky, but I saw his horse and rider getting up so that was a good result. I was sitting having a cup of tea at the time and I thought this was over. I couldn’t see him winning until the other horse fell then he got a run going to the last. He was a very fortunate for us on the day but you need a bit of luck.
5.30pm WellChild National Hunt Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase (Grade 2) 3m6f
- Gaillard Du Mesnil 10/11F
- Chemical Energy 8/1
- Mister Coffey 11/1
8th winner at The Festival for jockey Patrick Mullins
90th winner at The Festival for trainer Willie Mullins
More than 60,000 racegoers enjoy Champion Day
More than 60,000 racegoers enjoyed Day One of the Cheltenham Festival – including standout performances from two of Jump racing’s superstars.
Constitution Hill landed a first Unibet Champion Hurdle 12 months after winning the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle in 2022, while Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore were roared on to a thrilling victory in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle by a crowd of 60,284.
Ian Renton, The Jockey Club’s Managing Director for the West Region, said: “Constitution Hill’s performance in the Unibet Champion Hurdle was one which will live long in the memory for all those who were lucky enough to join us on Day One of The Festival this year.
“We were then incredibly fortunate to witness Honeysuckle’s victory in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle just 40 minutes later and the receptions that both horses received coming back into the winners’ enclosure were very special moments in The Festival’s history.”
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