HRH Zara Phillips was among the big names picking their favourite horses at the first day of Cheltenham yesterday. Fellow punters included England rugby player James Simpson-Daniel and the minister for racing, the Right Hon John Penrose MP.

Also cheering on the jockeys in yesterday’s seven races were Denis Kelly and Bijan Khezri, the chief executive and chairman of bookmaker Stan James, which was the biggest sponsor of the opening day of the festival, as part of the company’s £2.5m Road to Cheltenham series.

So no-one cheered louder than Kelly and Khezri when Al Ferof helped the bookies clean up by beating the favourite, Cue Card, in the Stan James Supreme Novices’ Hurdles Race – although the tide turned back in favour of the punters when heavily backed Hurricane Fly won the day’s biggest race, the Stan James Champion Hurdle.

The Capitalist caught up with Kelly in the winners’ enclosure shortly after the presentation of the £60,000 Champion Hurdle Trophy, where he said of the company’s £2.5m sponsorship deal: “Stan James benefits from racing and we felt we had to give something back. Cheltenham is the festival of the year for racing.”

The festival of the year, that is, even though Kelly lost money on every personal bet he had made so far that day. “The bookmakers have no more judgment than the normal punter when it comes to Cheltenham,” he confessed.

IN a strange twist of fate, both races sponsored by Stan James were won by champion jockey Ruby Walsh, back on form after returning to racing earlier this month.

But Walsh’s winning streak didn’t stop there – he went on to win a third victory, resulting in ashen faces at Racing UK, which had perhaps rashly launched a promotion offering anyone who signed up for the pay-TV channel on “Ruby Tuesday” a free subscription for a year if Walsh was the lead rider at the end of the day.

“We won’t have a box at Cheltenham next year,” said one Racing UK source as he eyed the Guinness Village, while another estimated the broadcaster would have to pay out “six figures” in free subscriptions, which usually sell for £240.

The only consolation is that when Racing UK ran a similar promotion with Frankie Dettori, 95 per cent of the subscribers who received a free deal renewed their annual subscription.

So everyone’s a winner. Sort of.

THE first day of the festival also marked the debut of Channel 4’s broadcast of the sport in high-definition, thanks to the smart new blue HD?trucks that graced the side of the course.

As a result, the images of the horses and riders were of spectacular quality – but only for punters at home watching on HD-ready sets. Because none of the racecourse monitors at Cheltenham have yet been upgraded to HD, it was pretty much a case of business as usual for visitors at the actual event.

With 1,400 racecourse monitors in need of being upgraded at Ascot alone, according to a former technolology partner of Channel 4, it seems slow and steady will win the race towards fully HD racing.

WHO was the most successful gambler at the first day of Cheltenham?

Stand up John Motson, the BBC’s football pundit otherwise known as Motty (pictured in his favourite sheepskin coat), who won every single race he bet on.

Motty made a swift exit by car after race number five, keen not to spoil his unbroken run of winners. But before he dashed for the door, he graciously shared his top tips with readers of The Capitalist.

According to the oracle, Time for Rupert, who races this afternoon, is “the best bet of the festival”, while Imperial Commander will win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the second year on Friday.

Place your bets now.