IT had been a long wait with multiple near-misses but finally Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, won the Cheltenham race his company sponsored today, thanks to the Henry de Bromhead-trained Balko Des Flos.
The seven-year-old, an 8/1 chance, landed the Ryanair Chase by four and a half lengths in great style.
Successful aboard Delta Work in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle earlier, Davy Russell delivered a confident ride aboard 8/1 chance Balko Des Flos, who travelled kindly throughout the two mile and five furlong event.
The seven-year-old son of Balko kept on gamely to score from Willie Mullins' Un De Sceaux (8/11 favourite) in second.
O'Leary was registering a 314/1 treble in the first three races on day three of the Cheltenham Festival following the wins of Shattered Love (4/1, JLT Novices' Chase) and Delta Work (6/1, Pertemps Final).
Davy Russell, partnering his third winner of the week and his 21st success at the Festival overall, said: "For a normal Cheltenham Festival, I would have fancied Balko Des Flos. We thought on nice ground there would be some improvement in him. I thought his chance had lessened given the more rain that fell.
"Henry de Bromhead is a master at this and all credit goes to him and the team. I rode Balko Des Flos twice on heavy winter ground and he was very disappointing. Then he came back and ran a real good race under Denis O'Regan at Leopardstown [December 28th] and I think that last run was really important for him as he learnt a lot and it just helped him with his confidence running so well on heavy ground. Henry got him here again in this sort of form, which isn't easy.
Balko Des Flos and Davy Russell win the Ryanair Chase
"He jumped really well, which was good, as his jumping has been really in and out this season. We were worried about the rain that fell but he handled it well and, as the race progressed, he stuck his chest out the further he went in the race - that was pleasing too as he was gaining confidence throughout.
"It's an awful shame that Michael doesn't lose any money but I get some of it, which is great!
"Once my horse was travelling well, I let him quicken and go forward on his terms and I was happy to do that as I didn't want him to slow down - I was going the one speed the whole way.
"It's an awful shame that Michael doesn't lose any money but I get some of it, which is great! He is a marvellous man for our sport and, as much as we give out about him, he is a great man. It's great to have any winner here and I'm very happy."
Russell, who was passed fit to ride following a fall aboard Bless The Wings in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase yesterday, said: "I have to be very gracious about Brian Hughes. He didn't even get changed for the bumper yesterday. He ran out to his car as he had an ice machine out there and brought it straight back in.
"I was the last to leave the racecourse last night along with Brian. He was very kind to me and, only for Brian's help and the help of the team here, I would not have been able to do my job. We are very lucky that we have some excellent professionals helping us. I would just like to thank them for that."
O'LEARY GLOWS WITH THE FLOS
"I think I've had a runner every year since we have sponsored and we've had so many seconds and thirds so this is very special," said O'Leary.
Balko Des Flos and Davy Russell are led back by Anita and Michael O'Leary after winning the Ryanair Steeplechase.
"It has cost me a fortune trying to win this race! It is great for Henry because he has hit the bar a couple of times with seconds and thirds. It is great to see him have a winner of a Grade 1 here.
"Today was our day. It is usually Willie and Ruby's. I am going to enjoy this. You obviously want to win the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle but, outside those, if I could have picked one this year, it would have been the Ryanair.
"I'm very emotionally attached to the race and it's the one opportunity that I get for my wife to give me some jewellery; it's normally the other way around. The children are all watching on television at home so it's a very special day.
"Balko has really enjoyed himself today and he's going the right way and improving. Imperial Commander won this and went on to be a Gold Cup horse and I don't know if our horse will stay three miles and two furlongs. We'll worry about that another time and I'd be happy if he's a Ryanair Chase horse again next year.
"I think we'd better keep the sponsorship going now! It's a great sponsorship, every year Ryanair bring about 20,000 people to Cheltenham although bookings back are a bit down on Friday as a lot of people are staying on to go to Twickenham on Saturday.”
De Bromhead said: "To beat Un De Sceaux, who is one of the best around ... I was hoping we would run very well but I was a little bit disappointed that the ground wasn't the usual type of Cheltenham ground, which would have been more in our favour than in Un De Sceaux's. But he got such a cool ride off Davy. He got into such a lovely rhythm; his jumping was brilliant.
On the future for Balko Des Flos, de Bromhead said: "We'll see what happens next. We focused on this race. There are plenty of different options coming up: Aintree, Punchestown. We'll see. Hopefully next year he might develop into a Gold Cup horse. He ran really well behind Road To Respect over three miles at Leopardstown at Christmas. Or we'll come back for the Ryanair again.
"To win any Grade 1 here is fantastic, and especially a championship race. To get one of the big ones is the icing on the cake of a great season. It hasn't sunk in at all! This is the focus of the season.
"And the lads [Gigginstown House Stud's O'Leary brothers, who own Balko Des Flos] - they've had a lot of faith in us and our operation. When the horses were being moved around last year [between trainers] they sent us some gorgeous horses, Balko being one of them, and we are very fortunate. Michael and Eddie put you under no pressure, or very little, and let you get on with your work, so I didn't feel any more pressure than usual [given that Michael O'Leary's company Ryanair sponsor the race]."
Un Des Sceaux was sent off the 8/11 favourite for the Ryanair Chase but met with only the second defeat of his career when coming home four lengths adrift of the winner.
Willie Mullins was sanguine with the result, saying: "There are no excuses. He got his ground and got his conditions. He was a little exuberant but I think the winner won very well. We can't have any complaints our horse ran very well."
CUE CARD SAFE
Cue Card, having his seventh appearance at the Festival today was sent off the 9/2 second favourite but Paddy Brennan pulled up the 12-year-old before the 12th fence after he dropped back to be last of the six runners.
Brennan commented: "We were hoping that he would cope with the ground a lot better and I think that's probably where his age showed a little bit on that ground. I had a split-second decision to make - did I want jump one fence too many?
"There is a lot of responsibility on him and we have to keep this Festival going. Cue Card is a big part of this Festival, he's a legend and you feel like you have to mind him like he is your child."
Colin Tizzard, his trainer, commented: "He is as bright as a button here. It is the last thing I expected [to see him run like that]. Paddy felt he didn't handle the ground, but he has raced on that before. We will take him home and have a little think about it for a couple of days."
29 PAGES OF CHELTENHAM COVERAGE IN THE IRISH FIELD THIS WEEKEND