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Espoir d’Allen Breezes To Champion Hurdle Success

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Gavin Cromwell, left, celebrates Champion Hurdle glory with Espoir d’Allen | Racing Post

By Emma Berry

CHELTENHAM, UK—It has been 11 years since high winds threatened the continuation of the Cheltenham Festival and that same year, 2008, was the last time the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle was won by a 5-year-old. Statistics, not to mention lofty reputations of his fellow contenders, may have weighed heavily against Espoir d’Allen (Fr) (Voix Du Nord {Fr}), but it proved no barrier to success for the mud-lover, who battled home through Storm Gareth to land the first-day feature by 15 lengths.

The victory was the eighth in the race and the third in a row for owner JP McManus, who may well have expected to be lifting the trophy again courtesy of Buveur d’Air (Fr) (Crillon {FR}). But in an eventful race, the dual champion fell at the third, bringing down Sharjah (Fr) (Doctor Dino {Fr}) as he tumbled, while eventual runner-up Melon (GB) (Medicean {GB}) continued to pile on the pressure up front. Favourite Apple’s Jade (Fr) (Saddler Maker {Ire}), one of three mares in the race, kept pace with him until weakening with three flights left to jump, leaving Laurina (Fr) (Spanish Moon) looking the main threat before she too found the testing conditions beyond her mettle. Espoir d’Allen, meanwhile, was still travelling like a fresh horse under Mark Walsh and from two out left little room for doubt that he would provide a first championship success for his awestruck trainer Gavin Cromwell.

“I’m lost for words,” said Cromwell, who combines training with farriery. “Espoir d’Allen is French-bred and they do mature earlier. He has been winning Grade 3s this season, so to go and do that is fantastic. He wouldn’t stand out in the string on his work, but he’s a gorgeous-looking horse.”

Cromwell, who trains a string of around 50 horses in Co Meath, paid tribute to Charlie Swan, the winner of three Champion Hurdles in the same colours aboard Istabraq (Ire), for finding Espoir d’Allen for McManus.

He added, “I started training a few point-to-pointers and enjoyed it, and it went from there. We still do a little bit of farriery because it’s the only way to make it pay. The game is full of talented trainers and better trainers than me – right the way through from the point-to-point ranks to the top of the game.”

It was also a first champion hurdle victory for jockey Mark Walsh, who said, “For a five-year-old to do that against what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdles run in the past few years, he is a right little horse. It is unbelievable.

“He is the first 5-year-old since Katchit (GB) to win the race and hopefully there will be a few more Champion Hurdles in him yet.

“Me and Gavin spoke before the race and the plan was to ride him for a place—we got a place, it was first place!”

Espoir d’Allen, a product of France’s AQPS (Autre Que Pur Sang) programme, was bred by Bruno Vagne, who travelled to Cheltenham to see the youngster become the first Grade 1 winner in six generations of his family.

“I bought his grandam from my father,” Vagne explained. “I sent her to Maille Pistol (Fr) as I won a nomination to him in an AQPS breeders’ draw, and now their daughter has produced a Champion Hurdle winner. It’s a very versatile family as it includes three-milers, chasers and hurdlers.”

Wednesday Inspection Called
Heavy rain throughout Tuesday morning and right up until the first race meant the ground was officially changed to soft, and while that may have been inconvenient for many of the runners, of greater concern are the increasing storm conditions predicted for Wednesday. A precautionary inspection has been called for 8am.

“Strong, gusting winds are forecast for the area on Wednesday, but their precise strength and location are not possible to predict in advance,” said Ian Renton, Regional Director for the south-west region of Jockey Club Racecourses.

“We are currently looking at forecasts of gusts in excess of 45mph, which may present challenges out on the track and around the site, dependent on their direction. We remain optimistic and we will assess the situation in the morning.

“It is important to let customers and participants know the exact situation as it stands. While our focus is to race, should the weather conditions not allow this we would stage the whole of Wednesday’s card on Saturday. This would allow for all seven scheduled races to be restaged to provide participants with their opportunity to race at The Festival and with originally advertised conditions, which would not be possible in the two remaining days.”

Ireland Vs France
The first day of the Cheltenham Festival could be viewed as Ireland’s day, with four of the seven winners hailing from Irish stables, but on the breeding front it was the French who could claim bragging rights. Five of the first-day winners were bred in France, including three of the four Grade 1 winners.

Strike one came in the opening race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, in which the Willie Mullins-trained Klassical Dream (Fr) (Dream Well {Fr}) was another to relish the softened conditions, tanking to a 4 1/2-length victory in the hands of Ruby Walsh. The win was a poignant one for the gelding’s owner Jo Coleman, who inherited the horse when her husband John died from bone marrow cancer last summer.

“It seems such a shock to be here to see John’s horse run, let alone win,” she said. “He bought Klassical Dream two years ago and dreamed he might be a good horse, and he’s proved it. He never got to see the horse run at all.”

She continued, “I didn’t really watch the race, I just listened to the boys around me getting more and more excited as it went on. I was too nervous to watch. John was a Willie Mullins fanatic, which is why he put his horses with him.

“I don’t know I can put into words how I feel, but it has blown our minds. I’ve brought some of John’s ashes with me in my handbag because he said he wanted to be here, but he knew his time was limited. He’s been at the Festival for the last 20 years and I wanted to make sure he got here.”

Willie Mullins, who has trained Klassical Dream to three consecutive wins this season since he joined his stable from France, added, “John Coleman had a lot of cheaper horses with me and then he retired and sold his business two years ago and said, ‘Here’s a few quid, go and buy me a Cheltenham horse’, and this is the horse. Jo and his family are here today and it’s fantastic, a very emotional victory.

“Klassical Dream was well within his own cruising speed travelling there, so he looks a real one, especially in this type of ground, and we know he can go up in trip no problem. He’s a very, very good horse. His work last weekend at the Curragh, we came away thinking here’s one who will take a lot of beating at Cheltenham, no matter what he came up against.”

Hubert Honoré was at Cheltenham on Tuesday to support Klassical Dream, whom he co-bred with Laure Guillaume from the Septieme Ciel mare Klassical Way (Fr). Though this was the first time Honoré had visited the Festival, it is not the first time his name has appeared on the roll of honour. In fact, it is the third consecutive year that he has featured as the co-breeder of a Festival winner.

The 5-year-old follows in the footsteps of the remarkable veteran Pacha Du Polder (Fr) (Muhtathir {Ire}), who on Friday will line up for his fifth appearance at jump racing’s biggest meeting, having won the last two runnings of the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase.

“I thought maybe Klassical Dream would still be a little tender for this type of race because he is only five years old and he was a bit tense before the race, though they tell me he is always like that. He doesn’t look like a powerful horse but he has a good stride. He’s fantastic,” said Honoré, who is more usually engaged breeding Flat horses at his Haras d’Omméel in Normandy. Among the recent graduates of the farm is the G1 Doomben Cup winner Pornichet (Fr) (Vespone {Ire}), who was also third behind Karakontie (Bernstein) in the G1 Poule d’Essai des Poulains before being exported to Australia, where he was won three group races.

The breeder added, ” Really I just look at the horses I have in front of me, and maybe once in every five years I have a good jumper.”

Mullins rolls on
Klassical Dream became the 59th Cheltenham Festival winner for jockey Ruby Walsh and the 62nd for Willie Mullins but the trainer soon notched number 63 when Duc Des Genievres (Fr), ridden by Paul Townend, landed the G1 Racing Post Arkle Trophy. The 6-year-old, bred by Colette Serre, is a son of the Haras d’Enki-based Buck’s Boum, a full-brother to one of the most popular horses in recent Festival history, the four-time G1 Stayers’ Hurdle winner Big Buck’s (Fr) (Cadoudal {Fr}).

“It’s very early days at the Cheltenham Festival but it’s fantastic to have two winners by this stage,” said Mullins after winning his fourth Arkle Chase.

“It feels very good, considering where I thought I was two or three weeks ago, looking at the string and going round our ground and horses we had tried to get runs into and couldn’t. It looks like we’ve got two nice horses there anyway, and a few to come.”

Things didn’t all go the trainer’s way, however. The G1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, which he has won in nine of the 12 years since its inception, appeared to be at the mercy of red-hot favourite Benie Des Dieux (Fr) (Great Pretender {Ire}), who brought back bad memories of Annie Power’s shocking fall of 2016 when crashing out at the final flight. Her misfortune meant that trainer-jockey brothers Dan and Harry Skelton recorded their first Grade 1 win at the Festival with the 7-year-old Dubai Destination mare Roksana (Ire).

So Easy For A Plus Tard
The widest-margin winner of the day was A Plus Tard (Fr) (Kapgarde {Fr}), who bid a cheery ‘see you later’ to his arrivals in the listed Close Brothers Novices’ Chase as he scorched up the hill for home to give Rachael Blackmore, one of the stars of the Irish season, her first Festival victory.

Bred in France by Antonia Devin and trained in Ireland by Henry de Bromhead, the 5-year-old carries the patriotic red, white and blue silks of one of Britain’s biggest breeding operations, Cheveley Park Stud. Though more noted for their exploits on the Flat, David and Patricia Thompson have long had the odd jumper in training and won the Grand National in 1992 with Party Politics (GB). A currently beefed-up National Hunt string sees them with a total of six runners at Cheltenham this week, including three today (Wednesday).

In an attritional running of the four-mile National Hunt Challenge Cup for amateur riders, only four of the 18 starters completed the race, which was won by the Ben Pauling-trained Le Breuil (Fr) (Anzillero {Ger}) under a typically patient ride from the crack rider of this division, Irishman Jamie Codd.

Pauling’s former boss, Nicky Henderson, is the most successful trainer of all time at the Festival and, despite the disappointment of seeing Buveur d’Air crash out of the Champion Hurdle, did manage to get one winner on the board when Beware The Bear (Ire) (Shantou {Ire}) and Jeremiah McGrath held on for success in the G3 Ultima Handicap Chase.

 

 

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