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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 22:19 GMT
Irish ahead on day one
By Sophie Brown
BBC Sport at Cheltenham

Conor O'Dwyer
Conor O'Dwyer celebrates winning the Champion Hurdle
The opening day of the 2004 Cheltenham Festival belonged to the Irish and was capped with an emotional win in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle.

After Brave Inca led home an Irish one-two in the opening race, Hardy Eustace, ridden by Conor O'Dwyer, led from start to finish to create a huge upset in the day's big race, the Champion Hurdle.

Hardy Eustace had also won a race at last year's Festival when ridden by Kieran Kelly, who was tragically killed after a fall at Kilbeggan last August.

"This is great for all the people involved but very sad because of Kieran - I think he must have influenced this," said the horse's trainer Dessie Hughes.

His comments were echoed by Hardy Eustace's owner, Laurence Byrne.

"All our thoughts at this time are with Kieran Kelly and his family. Kieran made this horse and I think there were two jockeys out there - Conor was on the horse but Kieran was guiding him."

O'Dwyer, too, paid tribute to Kelly and said the victory ranked alongside the greatest of his career - his victory in the Gold Cup, the Festival's blue riband event, in 1996 on Imperial Call.

This is what it is all about - I cannot describe it
Brave Inca trainer Colm Murphy
It also made amends for a disappointing start to the meeting for the 37-year-old jockey, who had been edged out by a short head in the first race and was then handed a three-day ban for hitting his mount War Of Attrition in the wrong place.

And another demonstration of the swings and roundabouts of racing fortunes came in the last race on the card.

Trainer Jonjo O'Neill saw his Creon, in the familiar colours of JP McManus, win in one of the day's many exciting finishes but the victory was tempered after another of his horses, Tardar, had to be put down after breaking a leg in the same race.

The opening race of the meeting, which began to the sound of the famous Cheltenham cheer, was won by Brave Inca, one of the Irish bankers of the meeting.

His jockey Barry Cash had previously ridden just one race at the Festival - and came last - while trainer Colm Murphy had never even had a runner.

"This is what it is all about - I cannot describe it," said Murphy, who spent six years at the stable of Aidan O'Brien.

Like the Irish, it was also a good day for bookmakers.

Last year's Festival was a financial disaster for them, with 10 out of 20 favourites winning.

Kieran Kelly
Jockey Kieran Kelly who died after a fall last August
And when Brave Inca, who had been heavily backed down to 7-2 favourite, took the first race of the Festival, the bookies must have feared they were in for yet another pounding.

But no other favourites won and with three of the winners priced at 50-1, 40-1 and 33-1, the bookies went home for the night with bulging satchels.

The home crowd did have something to cheer about, however, with local trainer Alan King notching up his first Festival win the grey Fork Lightning.

And some things never change - Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy were among the winners, collecting the Arkle Trophy with Well Chief, who ran in the colours of the stable's main owner, David Johnson.

Pipe also won the Kim Muir when Maximize put in a late burst of speed to pip the tiring Merchants Friend right on the line.



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