The Irish News guest columnist Noel Fehily wins Champion Hurdle on Buveur D'Air for JP McManus
ALREADY the most successful trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson has now won more Champion Hurdles than anyone else after Buveur D'Air beat stablemate My Tent Or Yours to give him a sixth win in the hurdling crown.
Having begun the season as a novice chaser, Buveur D'Air did not exactly have the ideal preparation after just a canter round against inferior opposition in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown.
However, Henderson was adamant that he should be in the Champion Hurdle and yet again the Seven Barrows man was proved right.
With the last two winners of the race sidelined by injury, the two-mile showpiece had an open look to it with owner JP McManus having three live hopes as Yanworth was sent off favourite.
Alan King's chestnut never looked like playing a part in the finish, though, and for a long way Henderson's other runner, Brain Power, looked like taking a hand until failing to come up the hill.
Sent off 5-1 under Noel Fehily, in the absence of McManus' injured retained rider Barry Geraghty, the six-year-old Buveur D'Air travelled powerfully and despite one or two minor errors, he was produced with an ominous looking challenge jumping the second flight from the finish.
Having claimed the front-running Petit Mouchoir before the last, Henderson's charge was in front soon enough, but found plenty for pressure to prevail by four and a half lengths.
Yet despite the impressive performance from the winner, Henderson admitted his first thought was for the runner-up, who has now been second four times at the Cheltenham Festival.
"You feel sorry for My Tent Or Yours. It's wonderful we've won the Champion Hurdle but that's three Champion Hurdles he's been second in. What else can you say about him? He's just sensational, but the young horse has done it," said the Seven Barrows handler.
"I had my doubts whether we'd done the right thing going back over hurdles after seeing Cloudy Dream run so well in the Arkle, given we beat him easily at Haydock.
"There wasn't a particular moment when I thought we should go back to hurdles but he'd only run four times, I just felt he had unfinished business over them.
"I think he could still go back chasing one day."
Asked what might be next this season, Henderson said: "It would be difficult not to stay over hurdles with him now. He is a novice chaser for the rest of this season, so he could go to Aintree if he wanted to go chasing but I don't think a champion hurdler has ever done that.
"We like doing extraordinary things, but I think that would be a bit bizarre. I don't really know where we go with him now. That ground today was as good as he will ever want it, but he also stays so a race over two and a half miles with cut in the ground would be great.
"The two-and-a-half-mile race at Aintree (Aintree Hurdle) could suit him over that trip."
He went on: "It's great to break the record, but they are there to be broken I've always said.
"It's the people at Seven Barrows and all the owners I'm really happy for, they make it fun, which is what it should be.
"This place is all about winners and all you can really ask for is one, but I'm very lucky to have a huge team of really nice horses.
"It was obviously the right decision to go back hurdling, but part of me feels all I've done is make My Tent come second again!"
McManus was also winning the race for a sixth time after Istabraq's hat-trick, Binocular and Jezki. It was also his 50th winner at the Festival.
"It doesn't get much better than that, the first two in the Champion Hurdle," he said.
"I can't remember exactly what Nicky said but he wanted to go back hurdling before any of the doubts about Faugheen and Annie Power.
"I just let him get on with it, he knows best.
"I'm delighted with My Tent too, to finish second at four Festivals is a great training performance.
"Yanworth got very warm before the race and he probably lost his race there.
"I wouldn't have been surprised if Barry (Geraghty) had picked Buveur but he said to me he didn't have to make the decision in the end."
Fehily was winning the race for a second time after Rock On Ruby in 2012 and was absolutely faultless in the saddle.
"Early on I felt I was doing too much and I thought it took me a while to get him switched off," said Fehily.
"He's just a very good horse. It's just fantastic. It was a great performance, it doesn't matter to me that people are saying it wasn't a vintage race.
"You certainly appreciate it more second time around."
Irish Champion Hurdle winner Petit Mouchoir confirmed his form with Footpad, who finished fourth, and trainer Henry de Bromhead said: "I'm delighted with him, he's run a fine race, and I'd say he's run to exactly the same mark as his Irish Champion win.
"We tried to put the others under pressure out in front. He might run again this season, but we'll get this season out of the way before making plans for next season (whether to go chasing or not)."
The novice Moon Racer, of whom there had been so much chat about which race he would run in, was pulled up by Tom Scudamore after a making a bad mistake just after halfway but was reported to be none the worse.
Henderson was winnign his second race of the afternoon after Altior's expected victory in the Arkle but if he had a memorable day, Gordon Elliott had a scarcely believable one with a first-day treble.
Elliott's most significant winner came in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle when Apple's Jade (7-2) showed true grit to deny the Willie Mullins-trained Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini
"Today was her Gold Cup," said the County Meath handler.
"She will stay three miles next year. I would imagine we will go to Punchestown."
Elliott earlier pocketed the curtain-raising Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle with 25-1 shot Labaik, who has rarely started a race this season, let alone win one, but did enough to foil the Mullins hotpot Melon.
The trainer joked: "I don't care if he never jumps off again!"
Elliott was back on top after the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase as the unheralded Lisa O'Neill steered Tiger Roll to glory at odds of 16-1.
"Lisa is an absolute star and it's been an amazing day," added the Cullentra House trainer.
"I can't believe it. To train three winners on the first day of Cheltenham. I thought if I had one this year I'd be delighted. It's a credit to the staff I have at home and the owners and the horses. It's brilliant."
Un Temps Pour Tout (9-1) was gameness personified to win back-to-back renewals of the Ultima Handicap Chase for David Pipe and Tom Scudamore, while Tully East came out on top for Alan Fleming and Denis O'Regan in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
But for Mullins it was an afternoon to forget as the Closutton handler struck out on the first day of the Festival for the first time since 2008.