VAUTOUR'S impressive six-length victory in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham on Thursday was the highlight of a remarkable St Patrick's Day which saw Irish-trained horses win six of the seven races on the card.
It was another black day for the bookmakers as the day's three bankers - Vautour, Thistlecrack and Limini - all won.
Vautour's success vindicated the decision of trainer Willie Mullins to the horse in this two and half mile race rather than the longer Gold Cup on Friday, his original target.
Mullins said: "He hasn't been exactly delighting me in his work, and it's amazing to see him making a performance like that. I think the drying ground has been a huge help to him, and maybe he's a horse who was just fed up of all that winter ground."
Today owner Rich Ricci apologised once more for confusion over the horse's festival target, and joked that he had been nicknamed 'Switch' Ricci.
Trainer Noel Meade was happy enough with the performance of Road To Riches, who was just caught near the line by runner-up Valseur Lido. The 7/1 chance, who had finished third in last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, tried to take on Vautour as the field turned for home but couldn't match the winner's acceleration heading to the second last and was eventually beaten half a length by Valseur Lido at the line, with the pair six lengths behind the even money favourite. Both placed horses are owned by Gigginstown House Stud.
BLACK HERCULES GIVES WALSH HIS 50th FESTIVAL WIN
Ruby Walsh's victory aboard Black Hercules in the opening JLT Novices' Chase was his 50th at the festival, and his fifth of this year's meeting. He leads the all-time roll of honour of jockeys at the meeting.
The Willie Mullins-trained 4-1 co-favourite was headed going to the second-last fence and hampered by L'Ami Serge, but fought back after the final obstacle to win by three lengths from Bristol De Mai. Walsh said: "He jumped super, travelled really well and dug really deep when I needed him to. He was tough. L'Ami Serge quickened by me two fences out but he threw his chance away a little bit when he dived markedly to his left and jumped straight across me. My horse was very clever - he almost stalled himself in the air so he didn't land on the back of L'Ami Serge".
Zabana unseated jockey Davy Russell at the start and then ran with the field throughout.
When asked about the unseat in the first race, which came after the runners had been asked to come in for a second time and undertake a standing start, Russell said: "It was frustrating - there was no indication we were about to go and my horse was static.
"It was like he was stuck to the ground and I needed to move him (before the tape went up), but when I pulled him sideways he went away from the tape, ran into Bryan (Cooper on Outlander) and there was only one route for me (out of the saddle). It was all quite sharp, when normally you have a bit of time to get organised for the restart.
"I didn't say anything to the starter, I was just frustrated, not for me, but for the connections of the horse".
MALL DINI SCORES FOR KELLY
Russell was soon in better form as he bounced back to win the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Final on Mall Dini. The Pat Kelly-trained winner had to survive a stewards' enquiry following a rough race which saw the third-placed finisher If In Doubt an unlucky loser.
The six-year-old Mall Dini had stayed on strongly up the hill to record a three quarter length success but the 14/1 chance had veered to his left immediately after jumping the final flight which caused interference to the eventual runner up, Arpege d'Alene, and If In Doubt, who was twice hampered going to the last and was then carried across the track as Mall Dini went left.
However, the result stood, giving Co Galway trainer Pat Kelly his first Cheltenham success.
THISTLE CRACKS IT
Thistlecrack produced a remarkable performance when running away with a strongly-run renewal of the Ryanair World Hurdle. The even-money favourite was always travelling powerfully under jockey Tom Scudamore and was still on the bridle turning for home, having seen off every one of his rivals bar Alpha Des Obeaux, who was being asked for his effort as the pair hit the home straight.
However, he had no answer to Thistlecrack as the winner surged clear on the run to the last and he powered clear up the hill to record an effortless seven-length victory. Trainer Colin Tizzard was wreathed in smiles following the race.
"Thistlecrack has been like that all season and it is lovely to get him here in the same form," said the trainer.
The Mouse Morris-trained Alpha Des Obeaux came home seven lengths behind the winner, yet was 22 lengths clear of third-placed Bobs Worth, the 11-year-old former Gold Cup winner who started at 33/1 and ran another terrific race. Last year's winner, Cole Harden, had to settle for fourth.
Morris said of his 8/1 shot: "The winner is a hell of a machine, and I've no excuses. My fellow had a super ride (from Bryan Cooper), jumped well and ran his heart out. We'll certainly consider running him at Aintree or Punchestown."
Empire Of Dirt ran out the commanding winner of the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, giving trainer Colm Murphy his fourth Cheltenham winner.
The 16/1 shot cruised into contention as the field turned for home but his jockey, Bryan Cooper, had to galvanise his mount as the eventual third King's Palace wasn't going down without a fight.
However, the nine-year-old still had plenty in the tank and he battled well to pass that particular rival as they reached the final fence and a good jump sealed matters as Empire Of Dirt scampered up the hill to record a four length victory, with Tango De Juilley running on to claim second.
Murphy is no stranger to big-race success at the festival, having trained Brave Inca to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle (2004) and the same horse doubled up by landing the Champion Hurdle two years later.
Big Zeb was another big race winner for Murphy at the festival when he landed the Champion Chase in 2010 and the Co Wexford handler was delighted following Empire Of Dirt's success.
"I got a bit animated as they came to the last but it's fantastic," said Murphy.
LIMINI PROOF THAT MULLINS HAS NO BOUNDARIES
Chasers, hurdlers, novice chasers and now a mare who is a novice hurdler - they all come alike to trainer Willie Mullins.
He trained his seventh winner at this week's Cheltenham Festival when Limini won the first running of the Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle. The race has been introduced at the meeting as a way of promoting mares as racehorses. In addition it helps breeders through encouraging racehorse owners to buy the fillies they produce.
Limini, who now carries the colours of Rich Ricci, was bought in France by Mullins' scout, Harold Kirk, for €100,000 in October, 2014. She had won before that sale, and is now unbeaten in three further races for Mullins.
He said: "She's a very good filly who has always shown us plenty since she joined us. She was a bit novicey on her first run, but was second next time and better again today."
JAMIE CODD LANDS THE KIM MUIR
An unforgettable St Patrick’s Day for the Irish at Cheltenham was completed when Cause Of Causes romped to victory in the closing Kim Muir Handicap Chase. Trained by Gordon Elliott for owner J.P. McManus, Cause Of Causes won the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last year. Just as then, Jamie Codd was in the saddle today and the well-backed 9/2 chance ran out a 12-length winner.
25 PAGES OF CHELTENHAM COVERAGE IN THE IRISH FIELD THIS WEEKEND