LONDON, United Kingdom |(AFP) – Nicky Henderson began the Cheltenham Festival on a low note with his star Altior an absentee but the sexagenarian training legend was all smiles a few hours later collecting his eighth Champion Hurdle with the dazzling Epatante.
The 69-year-old lost the battle to have Altior fit for a tilt at a third successive victory in Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase.
However, an opening day double — Shishkin winning the Supreme Novices Hurdle — more than compensated the seasoned campaigner.
It also propelled the urbane Henderson onto a record 66 Festival winners leap-frogging Irish great Willie Mullins, who drew a blank.
Epatante justified 2-1 favouritism to give owner JP McManus a ninth Champion Hurdle on his 69th birthday and the fourth in succession for the Irishman.
For jockey Barry Geraghty it was a fourth win in the race.
“It is a nice race is it not,” said a beaming Henderson.
“It goes such a long way back which I think was 1985 (See You Then). It’s a long time.”
Altior’s jockey Nico de Boinville had also compensated for his disappointment opening the Festival by winning on Shishkin.
The 30-year-old English jockey gave the 60,000 spectators a superb curtain raiser of a spectacle prevailing in a thrilling duel with Davy Russell on Abacadabras.
“It was not a very nice experience,” said de Boinville, who was riding his 11th Festival winner.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong but just shows what a great horse he is.
“It is a big relief after the disappointment of Altior being out.”
Shishkin restored owner Marie Donnelly’s appetite as she confessed prior to the off with two favoured runners she had been so nervous she could not eat lunch.
Her other runner Asterion Forlonge had set the pace but caused chaos by nudging into his Willie Mullins stablemate Elixir D’Anay and provoking the latter into falling two from home.
‘Having some craic’
Irish trainer Henry de Bromhead was another to record a double on the opening day — with Honeysuckle in the Mares Hurdle and Put The Kettle On in the Arkle Chase.
De Bromhead’s stable jockey Rachael Blackmore produced a sublime and cool headed piece of riding on Honeysuckle to deny odds on favourite Benie des Dieux.
Blackmore, 30, nipped up the inside on the turn into the straight as Robbie Power generously moved off the rail on Stormy Ireland giving her the opportunity and doing his Mullins stablemate Benie Des Dieux no favours.
Blackmore rode a stylish driving finish to deny the man who denied her the Irish jockey’s championship last year Paul Townend and seal her third career success at the Festival.
“This means so much this mare is so special,” said Blackmore.
“They (the winners at the Festival) get better really.”.
Put The Kettle On had earlier won The Arkle Chase impressively at 16/1 but Blackmore had chosen de Bromhead’s other runner, favourite Notebook.
Put The Kettle On — so named as the owners drink a lot of tea — was the first mare to win the race since Irish great Anaglogs Daughter prevailed in 1980.
“The whole way I was having some craic,” said winning jockey Aidan Coleman.
“Turning into the final straight I was going to be sick if I lost.
“She is a grand mare.”
Coleman then picked up two unexpected rides due to champion jockey Richard Johnson injuring a hip in a fall in the Arkle.
David Bridgwater became that rare beast to train the winner of the same race he won as a jockey.
The Conditional ridden by Brendan Powell won the race formerly known as The Grand Annual and which 48-year-old Bridgwater triumphed in back in 1997 on Flyer’s Nap.