AFTER a barren opening two days, trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh roared back to form at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival on Thursday with four winners.
The highlight of their quartet came in the featured Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle which went to 10/1 shot Nichols Canyon.
In a superb finish to the Grade 1 event, Walsh and the seven-year-old son of Authorized kept on resolutely up the stands' side rail to get the better of Neil King's ultra-consistent Lil Rockerfeller (33/1) by three-quarters of a length.
The well-backed 5/6 favourite Unowhatimeanharry, trained by Harry Fry, was a further three and a half-lengths back in third.
A delighted Mullins, registering his 51st winner at the Festival, said: "It was some performance. I didn't think three miles would suit him particularly as I thought he would be too keen, but Ruby got him settled and got the rail in the home straight.
"He is tough and with age they learn to settle. His last bit of work, we changed his stable and his work rider. He always works a bit dead at home so we thought about a change of routine and it worked.
"I thought of all the horses in the world you want to jump the last, you want him and he did. He had the benefit of the rail which also helped. He has handled very soft ground over two miles but he handled that ground today fine.
"It's absolutely magic. I enjoyed that one, the first two were probably relief but that was a little unexpected as I was wondering whether he would come alive as he hasn't in his two races this season."
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FIFTH FOR WALSH
Nichols Canyon was giving Ruby Walsh a fifth win in the race. His four previous wins in the race came aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Buck's (2009-2012).
Walsh, for whom it was a 55th Festival win, said: "Nichols Canyon is a little warrior, isn't he? He switched off, he jumped, and crept away.
"I thought Lil Rockerfeller was battling back close home but Nichols Canyon galloped all the way to the line.
"He started to come back to himself the last 10 days. Maisie has been riding him and she was happy. Katie (sister) rode him at the Curragh the other morning and she thought he worked very well.
"Whatever way you looked at it, this fella had won seven Grade 1s, albeit at shorter distances. I suppose he will have to go for the Iroquois [the $200,000 TVV Capital Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, with $500,000 going to any horse who can win both the Stayer's Hurdle and the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle at Percy Warner Park, Nashville, Tennessee] to see if he can get the bonus. He was third last year.
Graham Wylie said: "When Willie bought this horse for me, he said 'I might just have found you the next Inglis Drever [Wylie's Stayers' Hurdle winner in 2005, 2008 and 2008]. This is the little horse's eighth Grade 1 and he hasn't got the plaudits he deserved; hopefully today he will do.
"I said to Andrea this morning, I hope today is the Willie Mullins-Ruby Walsh day, and so it's proved. I was hoping to get placed, but I saw him coming up the hill and he was absolutely flying, so I thought, 'we might just nick this'."
Neil King, trainer of the runner-up Lil Rockerfeller, said: "It is absolutely fantastic. I am over the moon with him. Trevor (Whelan, jockey) has given him the most fantastic ride. It is the best he has jumped and he travelled so well throughout the race today.
"Trevor kept producing him at the right time and then he hit the front at the last. He just got in a little bit close to the last but, to be fair, I don't think that we would have beaten Nichols Canyon. It was a tremendous run.
"It was most disappointing at the time to miss the National Spirit (at Fontwell) but, with hindsight, it was probably a blessing in disguise. He was dull in himself on the morning of the race and not as sparky as he should be.
"Fortunately we left him at home and, with the benefit of hindsight, we couldn't have beaten Camping Ground, who was a machine round there. He would have probably had a hard race in second and would not have been able to come here, so it was a blessing in disguise.
"We knew we had got him in good order, we had done the most brilliant bit of work at Lingfield last Wednesday and then he had a couple of hours out hunting and he has been in cracking form since then.
"I am so proud of him, he is so game and genuine and why he was the price he was today, 33/1, it was an insult to him really. The owners have been so supportive and allowed me to do what I thought was best.
"Probably we go to Punchestown next, Aintree just wouldn't suit him as a track, it would be a little bit too sharp."
Whelan added: "I thought I had it won to be fair. Often, when a horse comes to him he digs it out very well. At the end of the day, he was beaten by a multiple Grade 1 winner. I couldn't fault him, what a horse."
REVIEW ALL THE CHELTENHAM ACTION IN THE IRISH FIELD THIS WEEKEND