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The equine flu that prompted a short-term shutdown of the sport in February and caused serious disruption to key trials in all disciplines was soon forgotten when the Cheltenham Festival opened. Day one saw a succession of easy winners, and none was impressive than Espoir D’Allen, whose 15-length defeat of Melon, a close second to Buveur D’Air the previous year and soon to go chasing, was a record winning margin in the race.
Espoir D’Allen had arrived at Cheltenham somewhat under the radar, after three successive wins in significantly weaker company, and he was a 16-1 chance in a race which most believed revolved around the Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina, and of course Buveur D’Air, who was seeking to complete a hat-trick of wins in the race.
While Buveur D’Air got no further than the third, bringing down the season’s dual Grade 1 winner Sharjah, and Apple’s Jade and Laurina both underperformed, they would have needed career bests to cope with Espoir D’Allen, who came clear in terrific style from the second last for Mark Walsh and Gavin Cromwell.
It was a performance that suggested he had the world at its feet, which made the news of his passing, following a freak accident at home in August, all the harder to take.
Apple’s Jade was beaten twice more afterwards, but when she was good she was very, very good, as we saw when she completed a hat-trick of Grade 1 wins on home soil with a front-running 16-length defeat of Supasundae in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle.
Laurina, who had compiled an impressive string of wins in lesser company without being seriously tested wasn’t raced again. Buveur D’Air, through no fault of his own, has never quite captured the imagination quite like other winners of multiple Champion Hurdles, and some were inclined to dismiss him as past his prime when Supasundae beat him over the extra half mile of the Betway Aintree Hurdle.
We should have learned by now that he’s a horse you write off at your peril and just weeks later, and back at two miles, he registered a surprisingly comfortable defeat of Supasundae in the BETDAQ Punchestown Champion Hurdle.
However, he will face increasing pressure from some particularly exciting emerging novices if he returns to run in a fourth Champion Hurdle next March. Unusually, and with due deference to Espoir D’Allen, the real star of the hurdling ranks last season was not one of the two-milers, but the stayer Paisley Park, whose Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle victory for owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth but is a huge enthusiast for a range of sports, was one of the highlights not just of the Festival, but of the entire season.
At Ascot in December he had provided both Emma Lavelle and Aidan Coleman with breakthrough career-first Grade 1 wins in the JLT Hurdle, and he was so impressive next time in the Cleeve that the Stayers’ Hurdle was his to lose.
He did not improve on that form in coming late to beat Sam Spinner at Cheltenham, with veteran ten-time Grade 1 winner Faugheen third, but he is head and shoulders better than the rest in his division and if all remains well the emerging challengers from the novice ranks have a very high standard to aim at.
Elsewhere over the longer trip If The Cap Fits clearly appreciated the step up when winning Aintree’s Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle, while Unowhatimeanharry rolled back the years in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle at Punchestown.