ESPOIR D’Allen (16/1) produced a coming-of-age performance to claim a brilliant victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham for trainer Gavin Cromwell and jockey Mark Walsh in the colours of JP McManus.
A field of 10 runners went to post for the two-mile showpiece and much of the pre-race chat focused on dual winner Buveur D’Air being taken on by Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade was the marginal favourite at 7/4 and challenged last year’s runner-up Melon for the lead throughout, after Buveur D’Air provoked gasps from the grandstands as he crashed out in the early stages.
However, it was clear some way from home that she was in trouble and as she dropped away racing down the hill, Melon remained in front, with his stablemate Laurina travelling strongly in his slipstream.
"LOST FOR WORDS"
But all the while Mark Walsh was biding his time aboard five-year-old Espoir D’Allen, who had won each of his three previous starts this season for trainer Gavin Cromwell, and he shot clear from the home turn to seal a hugely-impressive victory by 15 lengths.
Speaking after the race the Co Meath based trainer said: "I am lost for words. Espoir D'Allen is French-bred and they do mature earlier. He has been winning Grade 3's 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.
"I have three horses for J P McManus and about 50 in total, but not many graded horses.
Winning rider Walsh commented: "Everything went well for me on Espoir D'Allen. When Buveur D'Air fell at the third hurdle, I luckily avoided the fall and got a lovely run through the whole way.
"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 five-year-old since Katchit to win the race and hopefully there will be a few more Champion Hurdles in him yet."
Melon boxed on to finish second again, with 80/1 shot Silver Streak in third and Laurina fourth.
Buveur D’Air, bidding to become just the sixth horse in history to win the Champion Hurdle three times, appeared none the worse for his mishap and actually finished upsides the winner crossing the line.