Rachael Blackmore’s battling win kicks off Cheltenham Festival with a bang

Last year’s leading jockey Paul Townend picked up where he left off as Willie Mullins closed in on landmark win

Michael Jones
Tuesday 12 March 2024 19:26 GMT
Rachael Blackmore and Slade Steel opened the Cheltenham Festival in style
Rachael Blackmore and Slade Steel opened the Cheltenham Festival in style (AFP via Getty Images)

In spite of an onslaught of early rain threatening to dampen spirits as well as the course, Rachael Blackmore ensured the Cheltenham Festival began with a bang in a wonderful ride atop Slade Steel for the opening race of the week, the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

With spectators gathered around the grandstand, a false start scuppered the chance for an expectedly loud Cheltenham roar as sighs of disappointment met the horses instead as they led off. In an almost stubborn response, the gathered crowds were rewarded with a tantalising and fantastic opening race.

Blackmore marshalled Slade Steel beautifully over the deteriorating ground and waited for her moment. She held her horse just on the outside of the pack as the favourite, Tullyhill, and Tellherthename jostled for the lead upfront. With three fences to go, a sense of nervous anticipation settled on the watching onlookers who wondered if she’d left it too late to make a move.

She hadn’t.

Slade Steel drifted wide and edged into the lead over the final hurdle. An awkward landing allowed Mystical Power to close the gap and nudge into the lead which sent the crowd into overdrive as yells of “Come on Rachael!” could be heard as the horses fought their way to the finish line. The hill proved too much for Mystical Power’s challenge as Slade Steel found an extra gear with Blackmore working the reins hard. His nose went in front, then the head and finally he opened up a couple of lengths before crossing the line first, sending the crowd cheering for the popular winner.

Rachael Blackmore and Slade Steel won the Supreme Novices Hurdle to the delight of watching spectators (PA)

Willie Mullins’s Asian Master finished fourth in the opening race but the prolific Irish trainer didn’t need to wait long before recording his first winner of the Festival. A masterclass in racing from 2023 Gold Cup-winning jockey Paul Townend steered Gaelic Warrior home in the Arkle Challenge Trophy next up.

As the field tussled with each other before the start, Townend was forced to the front of the pack. With his horse-wearing headgear to help his focus, the jockey decided to go with it and advanced Gaelic Warrior into second place before settling in behind Matata and helping set the pace.

He tracked the leader until there was three to jump and had plenty in the tank leading to the final fence. Townend leapt his mount over in the lead despite a strong ride from Jack Kennedy and Found A Fifty. They couldn’t withstand the extra pace from Gaelic Warrior who thundered to the finish on the straight and won by eight lengths.

State Man lived up to his billing as the Champion Hurdle favourite earning Paul Townend his second win of the day (PA)

It was the start of a fine day for Townend and Mullins who went on to win twice more. The Champion Hurdle, from which the first day of the festival is named, was almost an exhibition for heavily backed favourite State Man. He lived up to his billing thanks to another focused ride from Townend who held him steady just behind the leaders and didn’t panic.

Nemean Lion and Irish Point made moves to storm away but they were no match for State Man. At the turn to home, Townend drifted his horse out wide before reeling in Nemean Lion and easing alongside Irish Point on the approach to the last. State Man landed superbly and comfortably raced to the line, finishing off with a time of four minutes 13 seconds.

A third victory for the duo promptly followed in very similar fashion. The Mares’ Hurdle set off with Townend atop another favourite in Lossiemouth. For the first half of the race, the pair were barely mentioned though kept in touch with the leading pack. Telmesomethinggirl ran well but when Lossiemouth made her move, again out to the right on the trampled ground, she was no match and the mare sprinted into the distance to the delight of the punters who had massively backed her to triumph.

Lossiemouth’s victory brought a third win of the day for jockey Paul Townend (PA)

Elsewhere, there was a first British winner of the festival in the Ultima Handicap Chase. With underfoot conditions worsening due to the earlier rain jockey David Bass rode a perfect race and timed his move perfectly to steer Chianti Classico into the lead with two fences to go. He left Twig in his wake and ran home to rapturous applause at 6-1.

The final two races of the day saw JJ Slevin and Lark In The Mornin storm to victory for trainer Joseph O’Brien in the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle and the Maureen Mullins National Hunt Challenge Cup was won by Derek O’Connor riding Corbetts Cross.

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