Trainer Nicky Henderson expressed relief after Buveur D’Air banished nagging doubt over his ability to win under pressure by retaining his Champion Hurdle title at the Cheltenham Festival.
Having cruised to victory in his three previous starts this season, 4-6 favourite Buveur D’Air held on by a neck under jockey Barry Geraghty to hand record-breaking Henderson, and owner JP McManus also, his seventh triumph in the race.
Seven-year-old Buveur D’Air finished ahead of 7-1 shot Melon, while 25-1 chance Mick Jazz came third, to become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the race since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005.
“He had a battle on his hands today and in a funny way that’s the first race he’s had this year,” said Henderson. “It’s just been in the back of my mind and has always worried me. That was the first time he’s had to put his head down and fight.
“He was tough and what a great race. They’ve gone a gallop there. You wouldn’t believe they would keep up in that ground and they have quickened again all the way up the hill. Two very brave horses and two great jockeys.”
Geraghty, who missed last year’s Festival through injury, said: “It was a proper race. The runner-up came and I thought he was coming to beat me, but he’s battle hardened. He’s as tough as nails and pulled it out.”
Jockey Ruby Walsh, meanwhile, steadied Willie Mullins-trained Footpad following an early error before storming to a 14-length success on the 5-6 favourite in the Arkle Chase.
Walsh, who only returned to racing from a broken leg five days earlier, has more wins at the meeting than any other rider and took his tally to 57. He said: “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“It is wonderful. It is great to be back. It has been a long winter and you wonder if it is all worth it and then you get a winner here and you remember it all over again.”
Walsh would later make it 58 triumphs as he won the Mares’ Hurdle for Mullins on 9-2 chance Benie Des Dieux, while jockey Lizzie Kelly earlier notched victory in the Handicap Chase aboard 5-1 favourite Coo Star Sivola.
Kelly, who was unseated from Tea for Two at last year’s meeting after lining up as the first female rider in the Gold Cup for 33 years, guided Coo Star Sivola to glory, edging out runner-up Shantou Flyer.