Cheltenham Festival: Buveur D'Air retains Champion Hurdle title

Buveur D'Air is pushed all the way by Melon
Cheltenham Festival
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Date: 13-16 March
Coverage: Full coverage on BBC Radio 5 live; continued on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text updates on BBC Sport website

Buveur D’Air retained the Champion Hurdle title with a thrilling victory from Melon at the Cheltenham Festival.

The 4-6 favourite held on by a neck under jockey Barry Geraghty to give record-breaking trainer Nicky Henderson a seventh victory in the race.

Buveur D’Air was passed by Melon on the uphill finish before battling back to triumph from the 7-1 shot, with 25-1 chance Mick Jazz in third.

The winner’s stablemate Charlie Parcs set a searing pace in the testing conditions and was followed by 2015 winner Faugheen before they both faded.

Footpad was a brilliant winner of the Arkle Chase after Ruby Walsh steadied his Willie Mullins-trained mount following an early blunder.

And jockey Lizzie Kelly scored her first Cheltenham Festival victory as 5-1 favourite Coo Star Sivola, trained by her stepfather Nick Williams, landed the Ultima Handicap Chase.

Seventh heaven for Henderson

Barry Geraghty celebrates victory with his wife, Paula

Buveur D’Air became the sixth horse to win the two-mile Champion Hurdle more than once, but the seven-year-old was made to battle for victory.

Geraghty always had his horse in the slipstream of the early pacesetters, but it was Paul Townend on the well-backed Mullins challenger Melon who posed the biggest challenge.

The two hurdlers went head to head up the home straight, roared on by a bumper crowd, before Buveur D’Air got the better of the tussle.

It was a seventh Champion Hurdle for Henderson, and also for owner JP McManus. The Festival’s all-time leading trainer has previously won with See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009) and Binocular (2010).

Footpad thrills Cheltenham

Walsh was a popular winner with the crowds at Cheltenham

In the Arkle Chase, Footpad made a serious early error but Walsh bided his time as Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados battled it out at the front and came through for an impressive 14-length victory on the 5-6 favourite.

Jockey Walsh, who had only returned to racing from a broken leg five days ago, has more wins than any other rider at the meeting and this took his career tally to 57.

“It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” said Walsh, 38.

“It is wonderful. It is great to be back. It has been a long winter and you wonder if it is all worth it and then you get a winner here and you remember it all over again. The leg was all right. Physical pain can be managed.”

Walsh made it 58 when winning the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle for Mullins on Benie Des Dieux.The 9-2 chance beat outsider Midnight Tour (33-1) as 1-2 favourite Apple’s Jade could only finish third in the race she won last year.

Kelly cool on Coo Star Sivola

Lizzie Kelly was visibly emotional after winning for the first time at the Festival

Victory for Kelly, the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over jumps – on Tea For Two in 2015 – was a form of Festival redemption.

She left the meeting dejected last year after being unseated from Tea For Two at the second fence after lining up as the first female rider in the showpiece Gold Cup for 33 years.

But the 24-year-old bore a wide smile this time thanks to a thrilling success in the Ultima Handicap Chase, edging out runner-up Shantou Flyer by just a neck.

“That uphill finish was so long. I can’t believe it. I’m speechless,” she said.

“Although I had a horrendous Cheltenham last year, you learn from that. I genuinely had written off the idea of me having a Festival winner. This is the cherry on top. I am delighted.”

Muddy marvels

A racegoer takes a selfie with Best Mate

The meeting began on the wettest ground for 36 years after persistent rain in the build-up, with the going described as heavy, soft in places.

But the clouds lifted and the sun shone as a crowd of around 65,000 gave out the traditional ‘Cheltenham roar’ for the start of action at the Gloucestershire track.

And it was local trainer Tom George – based around 15 miles away at Slad – who triumphed in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle as Summerville Boy (9-1) denied Kalashnikov in a thrilling finish.

Favourite Getabird, for the Walsh-Mullins combination, faded after leading from the front and the winner – ridden by Noel Fehily – got up on the line after surviving some jumping errors including a bad mistake at the second last.

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