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Page last updated at 19:34 GMT, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Ruby Walsh stars on Cheltenham Festival opening day

Coverage: BBC Radio 5 live Tue 1200-1600 GMT, Wed/ Thur 1400-1600, Fri 1300-1600, Champion Chase 1520, Channel 4 TV/Racing UK
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Trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh
Trainer Mullins and jockey Walsh celebrate winning the Champion Hurdle

By Frank Keogh at Cheltenham

It was billed as Centenary Day, but in hindsight Ruby Tuesday would have been a fitting title for the 2011 Cheltenham Festival's opening action.

Jockey Ruby Walsh's first Champion Hurdle win, on Hurricane Fly, was the poignant highlight of a masterful treble on the day which marked the fixture's 100th year.

Trainer Willie Mullins had to be patient with this horse, an approach which meant his late, great father Paddy was not here to see his son claim his first championship contest at the home of jump racing.

Hurricane Fly had missed the two previous Festivals through injury and Mullins nervously woke every morning awaiting news of whether his talented hurdler would make it this time.

"All season I'd wait to hear from the stable girl that there might be some trouble, but we got here," the 54-year-old Irishman said.

"I've been counting down the days and minutes until this race. The minutes were like hours towards the end, but once I legged Ruby up and got him off down to the start, the relief was there."

Victory came 25 years on from that heady day in 1986 when his father Paddy saddled the mare Dawn Run to become the only horse to seal a Cheltenham Gold Cup-Champion Hurdle double.

Paddy died in October, aged 91, and this was Willie's first Festival without him.

"He was in my thoughts during the day," he said, pausing for a moment, perhaps to check his emotions.

"I'd have loved to have had him here. The preparation of the horse was half down to him.

"I imagined what he would have done and I was thinking that as we were galloping up the straight."

You can't leave Ruby Walsh on the sidelines when you have the favourite for the Champion Hurdle

Trainer Willie Mullins

In the process, Hurricane Fly blew apart the statistic which said a son of Montjeu could not win a race at the Festival.

The stallion's record read 0-44, but no-one had told this talented seven-year-old, who is known simply as "The Fly" by supporters.

"People were wondering whether a Montjeu could win around here but I looked back at the winners we have had in the past here and most of them had a sire who hadn't had a winner at Cheltenham," said Mullins.

The trainer provided the third of Walsh's treble in Quevega, while the jockey kick-started his Festival with victory on Al Ferof for Paul Nicholls in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Those three wins took the Festival's all-time leading jockey to a total of 30 victories, seven ahead of his nearest rival, Tony McCoy.

When you consider he had ridden only one winner - on Saturday - in the last four months after being sidelined with a double break of his right leg, it puts the achievement in perspective.

Less than a week ago, and only five days after his return, he needed two stitches to a cut below his eye after a fall at Naas.

Mullins has a picture on his phone, taken about a month ago, of Walsh's leg with a gruesome-looking metal cage on it which aided his recovery.

"I kept in touch with Ruby while he was off, and the cage enabled him to walk and keep his muscle tone up," said the trainer.

"When he eventually came down to ride, I could see there was nothing wrong with him and a half-fit Ruby is better than most men fully fit, so I wasn't concerned."

While Walsh took the applause, spare a thought for Paul Townend, the 20-year-old who had ridden Hurricane Fly in his last five races and was replaced when Walsh returned.

Ruby Walsh on his way to victory in the Mares' Hurdle on Quevega
Walsh on his way to victory in the Mares' Hurdle on Quevega

Mullins took Townend to one side and said he would try to make him champion jockey in Ireland this season as some compensation, which means Walsh may miss out on some rides he would normally have expected.

"It wasn't a hard decision to go with Ruby. He is my stable jockey and Paul has had a fantastic innings while Ruby was out," said Mullins.

"You can't leave Ruby Walsh on the sidelines when you have the favourite for the Champion Hurdle."

Looking like a boxer who had done 12 rounds in which he lost the points decision, Walsh did not get carried away after his Champion Hurdle triumph.

"Willie and Paul have done some job with the horse, I only rode him today," said the 31-year-old from County Kildare.

"A lot of people have got me here. I am very grateful to Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls because they have put me straight back on these horses.

"There are ups and downs, good days and bad days in racing. I've been close a few times in the Champion Hurdle - I think I've been second twice - but on paper this was the best ride I had."

The week could get even better as Walsh has three chances of guiding a top steeplechaser to their third Cheltenham championship prize.

Walsh is aboard 2008 and 2009 winner Master Minded in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday.

He rides dual victor Big Buck's in Thursday's World Hurdle and then reunites with 2007 and 2009 Gold Cup champion Kauto Star on Friday.

Now an iconic Festival figure, each Walsh winner is greeted by a rousing chorus from his followers of "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby" to the tune of "Ruby" by the Kaiser Chiefs, which topped the charts around the time he won his first Gold Cup on Kauto Star.

The song contains a line "Due to lack of interest tomorrow is cancelled". There is not much fear of that for Walsh and Cheltenham.

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see also
Hurricane Fly takes Hurdle glory
15 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham Festival day one as it happened
15 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham images
18 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham Festival 2011 schedule
23 Feb 11 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing

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