TOP jockey Ruby Walsh insisted victory in the Champion Hurdle vindicated his decision to ride Faugheen over Hurricane Fly in the opening day’s feature race at the Cheltenham Festival yesterday.
The unbeaten seven-year-old gelding held off a late challenge from stable companion Arctic Fire to maintain his perfect record of nine wins from nine races, as former champion Hurricane Fly came third – a 1,2,3 for master trainer Willie Mullins.
Walsh had been on board Hurricane Fly for his previous 18 outings, having partnered favourite Faugheen on only six occasions, but plunged for the young pretender over the proven performer.
“It was a massive call not to ride Hurricane Fly. When you see what Hurricane Fly was doing at home, it was a big call to get off him,” said Walsh.
“Faugheen’s not slow, no else wanted to make it and I was going to go my fractions not theirs. Willie is a genius and has a great team of staff around him. Faugheen is a wonderful horse. He has jumped better, he missed the second-last.”
Triumph in the Champion Hurdle completed a treble for Mullins and Walsh, who earlier won the Supreme with Douvan and the Arkle with the front-running Un De Sceaux.
The duo were on course for a fourth success in the fifth race of the day until Walsh’s fall at the final flight on favourite Annie Power allowed stablemate, with Paul Townsend in the saddle, to fully capitalise.
That victory for Mullins equalled Nicky Henderson’s record of four winners in one afternoon at the meeting, a landmark set on the second day back in 2012. Mullins is also the first man in history to saddle the first three Champion Hurdle runners home.
“It’s unbelievable to have four winners in one day,” said Mullins. “I keep thinking this is not real and it won’t last forever, so I’m going to enjoy it now. You dream of it, but you don’t think it could ever happen.
“I’ll leave it for other people to decide if it’s my greatest achievement, but it would have to be right up there, along with some fantastic days at Punchestown, riding a winner here and winning a Grand National. I wouldn’t like to rate them.
“Ruby was fantastic and Faugheen was fantastic, and we know he’s still improving.
“Ruby slowed it down and then quickened at the second-last as he put it to bed very quickly. I don’t think he’ll be jumping a fence for a very long time, if he ever does. There’s no need to when he’s so good over hurdles.”
Walsh’s fall on Annie Power in the Mares’ Hurdle as he chased a fourth win of an impressive opening day is reported to have cost punters around £40m and provided a modicum of respite for already panicked bookmakers after the Mullins-Walsh axis fired and the County Carlow handler was responsible for four of the first five favourites.
“I don’t know why she did it,” added Walsh. “She was a bit far away and came down under the top bar and turned over. That’s racing, that happens. It’s been a super day. Douvan was great, Un De Sceaux was brilliant, Faugheen winning the Champion Hurdle was magic. At least Annie Power got up and there’ll be another day.”
AP McCoy, a winner of 19 consecutive champion jockey titles, will retire at the end of the season and was denied a dream success in his final Champion Hurdle on Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki, last year’s winner, after a fourth-placed finish.
“AP thought he may have been a bit too close to Faugheen early on. AP has blamed himself for trying to take Faugheen at the top of the hill,” said Harrington. “He has been beaten by the better horse but he has probably just burnt himself out of finishing second or third and has ended up fourth.
“The winner was very good and he did it the hard way, making all the running, and I can’t remember the last horse to do that in a Champion Hurdle.”