Irish flying on ‘Ruby Tuesday’ at Cheltenham Festival
Satisfaction was guaranteed for pundits backing Ruby Walsh as the Irish jockey picked up a Cheltenham Festival opening day treble for Willie Mullins, including the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly.
The bitter weather didn’t stop a record crowd for the first day gathering but among those to feel the effects of the Arctic conditions was pundit John McCririck, who was recovering in hospital last night after falling ill at the racecourse. The 72-year-old complained of feeling unwell during the first day of the festival and was taken to hospital by ambulance.
The veteran broadcaster was expected to be kept in Cheltenham General Hospital overnight for further tests to be carried out, his agent said last night.
Speaking on course, a friend of McCririck’s said: “John felt unwell at the races and will be kept in overnight for assessment.”
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Walsh and Mullins dominated the opening day, providing the fizz for punters in a thrilling first race as Champagne Fever triumphed over fancied My Tent or Yours.
And after Hurricane Fly blew past his rivals, including valiant Dorset-trained defending champion Rock on Ruby, to become the first horse for three decades to regain his Champion Hurdle crown Walsh brought the house down again as red-hot favourite mare Quevega won the same event for the fifth year in a row – the first horse to do that since the great Golden Miller in the 1930s.
Despite the snow, the wind chill and the banks of photographers, Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall enjoyed the first day of the Cheltenham Festival from their ‘usual’ spot, just in front of the weighing room.
Joking with friends and wrapped up against the cold, the Queen’s granddaughter kept her tips for the big race to herself, but the former Bath and Gloucester rugby ace admitted to being excited about this Friday’s Gold Cup, where his horse is a surprise contender for jump racing’s biggest prize. Tindall splashed out £12,000 on an unknown horse called Monbeg Duke when a joke bid at a charity auction actually bagged him the horse. He had to persuade friends to help him buy the horse, and got an earful from Zara for doing so – but after it won its last three races, including the Welsh Grand National, it’s now worth 20 times his original price, but is a longshot at 66-1 on Friday.
The freezing weather meant any fashion statements were kept to a minimum, but perhaps the best colour worn yesterday belonged to the mauve suede coat belonging to Olympic heroine Denise Lewis, who was a special judge of the best turned-out horse in an early race.
“I really appreciate the sport, and I identify with the training, the diet, the thought and the preparation that goes into getting a horse out for a big race,” said the heptathlete. “I’m really enjoying my time at Cheltenham so far, despite the cold.”