Faugheen is Cheltenham headline grabber

SportBy Kevin Palmer
Faugheen and Ruby Walsh triumph at Cheltenham
Faugheen and Ruby Walsh triumph at Cheltenham

Faugheen was the star of the show in the Stan James Champion Hurdle as he headlined an amazing Willie Mullins four-timer on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

It was always going to take something special for Ruby Walsh to give up the ride on the record-breaking Hurricane Fly, but after leading from pillar to post in the championship event, it was clear just why he did.

While Faugheen had promised to do something like this and was sent off the 4-5 favourite, the seven-year-old still had to prove himself at the highest level.

With three of the first four from last year's race lining up, Faugheen was going to be tested to the limit, or so we thought, but after giving his mount a breather coming down the hill, Walsh pressed the button and the response was immediate.

For a few strides the veteran Hurricane Fly loomed large in search of a third win, but he could find no more up the hill and it was left to another Mullins runner, Arctic Fire, to chase home the winner.

He was a length and a half behind, but Walsh felt his mount was idling having been in front for so long.

It meant Mullins became the first man in history to saddle the first three home, an achievement even he felt was beyond him on his way to the track.

"You dream of it, but you don't think it could ever happen," he said.

"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.

"I thought Hurricane Fly ran a fantastic race throughout and Arctic Fire - I can't see a rib on him yet, so I think there is far more improvement in him than the rest of them.

"All three of them could go to Punchestown and the way Arctic Fire finished you'd think Aintree might suit him. He's owned by the same people who had Simenon so we could look to go back on the Flat and he could be a Melbourne Cup horse.

"Faugheen was just awesome today and we know he's still improving."

Walsh and Mullins then landed the Arkle with 4-6 favourite Un De Sceaux, who won by six lengths from God's Own.

Mullins was thwarted in the sixth race of the day, though, with Perfect Gentleman fourth behind winner Cause of Causes (8-1), ridden by Jamie Codd.

Grand National contender Druids Nephew, ridden by Barry Geraghty, gave trainer Neil Mulholland his first Festival win in the handicap chase.

And Irish Cavalier took the final race of the day, Paul Townsend leading the 11-1 shot to victory ahead of favourite Thomas Crapper and Generous Ransom.

The action was watched by a record first-day Festival crowd of 63,249 - 6,166 more than last year.