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March 20, 2019

Espoir D'Allen springs surprise as McManus wins eighth Champion Hurdle

Espoir D'Allen springs surprise as McManus wins eighth Champion Hurdle
'Ireland won four of the seven races on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, including the feature race The Champion Hurdle ' - By: AFP/File GLYN KIRK

Irishman JP McManus went from despair to joy in the Champion Hurdle on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday as his two-time winner Buveur D'Air fell but outsider Espoir D'Allen carried his green and yellow silks to glory.

The 68-year-old former bookmaker -- whose Buveur d'Air was bidding to emulate another McManus-owned horse Istabraq's three straight Champion Hurdles victories (1998-2000) -- was winning the race for an eighth time, his 55th Festival winner since he first tasted success with Mister Donovan in 1982.

For trainer Gavin Cromwell -- who was a farrier until a couple of years ago before trying his hand at training -- and jockey Mark Walsh it was their first in the race.

Their victory was one of four from the seven-race card by the Irish raiders -- in their annual 'Olympics of racing', with Willie Mullins bagging a double, which should have been a treble.

Wednesday could see a lull in proceedings as heavy winds are forecast which could threaten both the temporary stands and place spectators at risk -- an inspection is due at 0800GMT.

If racing is called off -- the feature race is The Queen Mother Champion Chase -- it will be rescheduled for Saturday.

- 'Ashes are in my bag' -

The opening race of the day, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, provided a highly emotional outcome as the Mullins-trained Klassical Dream took the honours -- both his and jockey Ruby Walsh's sixth win in the contest.

It was tinged with sadness as the horse's original owner John Coleman, who sold his business and put some of those funds into finding a Cheltenham-class horse, died last summer.

"John has been a pal for a long time and sent me horses, though it was only when he sold his business he was able to buy one of this quality," said Mullins, whose first win at the Festival came in this race with Tourist Attraction in 1995.

"There will be lots of beers and tears tonight."

Coleman's widow Joanne -- who took over ownership after his death -- had brought something rather special in her handbag.

"John's ashes are in my bag," she told broadcaster ITV.

"He did not miss one (a Festival) for 20 years and I was determined he would be here for this one."

Mullins quickly added winner number 63 to his Festival tally as Duc des Genievres "purred up the hill", according to the trainer, to take the Arkle Chase in dominant fashion in an Irish 1-2-3.

"I do not have the vocabulary to describe how good Willie is," remarked Duc des Genievres's rider Paul Townend, who was winning his ninth race at the Festival.

Mullins -- who has sent by his own admission a depleted raiding party this year -- should have had a third.

However, a sloppy jump at the last by defending champion Benie des Dieux in the Mares Hurdle saw her come to grief under Ruby Walsh and hand victory to Roksana, giving the Skelton boys -- trainer Dan and jockey Harry -- a gift of a winner.

Mullins's great English rival Nicky Henderson will have been left frustrated by Buveur D'Air's fall.

However, the 68-year-old still has plenty of firepower for the rest of the week and did not leave empty-handed as the quirky Beware The Bear, ridden by Jeremiah McGrath, landed the Handicap Chase.

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