CHELTENHAM, England (AP) — Hurricane Fly became the first horse in 38 years to regain the Champion Hurdle title as jockey Ruby Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins completed a treble at the Cheltenham Festival on opening day Tuesday.
The Irish duo began the four-day festival with Champagne Fever taking the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and Quevega later won the Mares' Hurdle for a fifth successive year. In between those triumphs, the feature race saw the 13-8 favorite Hurricane Fly overtake defending champion Rock On Ruby after jumping the penultimate fence before winning by 2 ½ lengths.
"He made a mistake or two, but he's as tough as nails," Walsh said. "I was in front a good two furlongs too soon. He pinged the last (fence) and I'm glad he got (the title) back to show everyone he's a true champion hurdler."
Hurricane Fly won in 2011, was beaten into third last year, but was the first horse to regain the Champion Hurdle crown since Comedy of Errors in 1975. "Last year was so disappointing, but since he came back this year he has been much heavier and stronger," Mullins said. "Every gallop he's had, every race he's had, he's bounced back and taken it all in his stride.
"I was a bit worried at halfway. They'd gone such a pace and Ruby must have known that, too. Ruby just stayed where the horse was comfortable. He's the champion hurdler again now." Rock On Ruby, which set out at 11-2, pushed Countrywide Flame, a 16-1 shot, into third in the 2 1/2-mile (4,000-meter) race.
In the Mares' Hurdle, a fifth straight win for Quevega equaled the Cheltenham feat achieved by Golden Miller, the Gold Cup winner from 1932 to 1936. The 8-11 favorite beat French raider Sirene D'Ainay by 1 ½ lengths, while Swincombe Flame was another two lengths back in third.
"To be associated with a horse that wins five times at the Festival, you don't dream of those things," Mullins said. "I used to read about horses like Golden Miller in those racing books when I was young, but those horses are once in a lifetime, once in a century. I'm privileged to be part of it."
Champagne Fever was a Cheltenham winner over hurdles for the second successive year. Victory in the Champion Bumper came last year when Mullins' son, Patrick, was in the saddle. But Walsh was on board for this year's successes in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Champagne Fever, the gray which went out at 5-1, beat 15-8 favorite My Tent Or Yours by half a length. In the Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, 8-15 favorite Simonsig recovered from a jumping error heading down the back straight to beat 33-1 outsider Baily Green by 2 ¼ lengths.