THE Willie Mullins-trained Footpad emulated stable companions Douvan and Un De Sceaux with a scintillating performance in the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase, the second race of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
The 5/6 favourite travelled kindly throughout the two-mile contest despite one bad mistake midway through the contest as Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados set a frenetic early pace. However, the two front-runners paid for their early exertions and Footpad swept past the leaders entering the home straight under a motionless Walsh.
A fine leap at the last sealed victory for the six-year-old son of Creachadoir, who came clear to score by 14 lengths over the Nicky Henderson-trained Brain Power (14/1) in second.
A delighted Walsh, who only returned to the saddle last Thursday after breaking his leg and was delighted to ride his 57th victory at The Festival.
"Aidan Coleman [jockey Saint Calvados] and Davy Russell [jockey Petit Mouchoir] set off to lead with the choke out like Getabird in the first and I was happy to sit third.
"I was happy going the pace I was going. I didn't want them getting any further away from me but I thought on this ground they might capitulate up front. You can make it on this ground from the front but you have to make it on your own terms, not making it on the horses' terms.
"I was probably in front too early (over two out), but I was worried about Davy putting on pressure down the hill, but Footpad jumped super except for one mistake down the back - I wanted to pop the fence and he wanted to come as I thought it was too early to come.
"He was very good at the second last and pinged the last and he galloped all the way to the line. His performance was reflective of his homework.
"He was too free in last year's Champion Hurdle when he was fourth and I thought he would have been third if he had settled.
"Today was a good performance and he jumps very well. He has a great way of jumping and that's a big help. The way he stayed as a four-year-old suggests he would stay further, particularly as he is getting older.
"He has brains, he has pace and he has stamina. He is not a work horse at home, he is a racehorse and he saves himself for the racecourse. He is high class.
"It was great of connections to put me back on him and it's great to be here.
"Footpad was brilliant. I cannot say I was confident down the back when he landed on the first one, but I said to myself that they were going too fast in front and can't keep going.
"I knew when Davy [Russell] got the better of Saint Calvados that he would try to get a breather into Petit Mouchoir. That is why I got up to him and kept him honest, but then I was thinking 'hang on, Nico has been following me, so he is going to be coming on too.' Maybe you can think too much at times.
"Footpad's work at home was spectacular and his jumping has been brilliant all year."
Footpad comfortably justified his position as odds-on (5/6) favourite in the G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase, winning by 14 lengths under Ruby Walsh.
Six-year-old Footpad made an impressively huge leap at the last, but earlier on in the two-mile contest he hit a fence hard, giving his supporters an anxious moment. But Ruby Walsh, for whom it was a 57th Festival winner, didn't panic and the horse's jumping was confident after that.
It was a 55th Festival winner for Footpad's trainer Willie Mullins, who was scoring his third Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase in four years.
Mullins said: "Going past the stands the first time the horse was off the bridle and when he made that bad mistake I thought, 'Oooh, that's it, over', and he was off the bridle the whole way down the back, but Ruby sat and sat and waited for the two in front [Petit Mouchoir and Calvados] to come back. He had a feeling the ones in front were going too fast and it turned out to be right."
Asked whether he had ever had a horse who had improved so much when swapping hurdles for fences, Mullins replied: "I doubt it. We had this fella marked down as a JLT [Novices' Chase, over two and a half miles], and we were looking around trying to buy novice chasers to run over two miles. When we ran this fella in his first two races we said 'Eh, we have the best one in our yard!' His jumping has just gone up another gear, and he can stay, so we might just have a Gold Cup horse on our hands."
Simon Munir, who owns Footpad along with Isaac Souede, said: "It was a very competitive renewal of the Arkle. Only five runners but three or four of them had a great chance. It is a tremendous relief as I hate odds-on favourites.
"Ruby is the master - he let the horse recover [from the mistake] and then worked him in to the race. There is nothing better than getting a winner on the first day of The Festival. The pressure is off now."
PETIT TAKES THIRD
Petit Mouchoir, sent off at 4/1, was beaten into third by a staying on second-placed Brain Power.
The grey Al Namix seven-year-old, trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Davy Russell, pleased connections on what was only his third run over fences.
De Bromhead commented: "Davy (Russell) thought he had possibly gone a bit quick. We left ourselves to be shot at but the way he was going and jumping you couldn't blame him.
"It looked like he just got a bit tired at the end. This was only his third run over fences so it was OK."
Russell added: "He ran well. We tried to beat the favourite but weren't good enough."
Giggingstown House Stud owner Michael O'Leary reflected: "It was very good race and the best horse won.
"Our's (Petit Mouchoir) plus Saint Calvados (fourth) possibly cut there own throats, they were both keen early on but I don't think it made any difference to the result as Footpad is clearly a very good chaser. His form is in the book all season."
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