What the afternoon lacked in atmosphere it more than made up for in drama, as four Grade One races produced stylish winners and stunning performances.
Here’s five things we learned …
BRILLIANT BLACKMORE MAKES HISTORY WITH HONEYSUCKLE
Rachael Blackmore made history to become the first female jockey to win the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle at The Festival™ supporting WellChild – then said she hoped it would inspire others to follow their dreams.
Blackmore partnered the 11/10 favourite Honeysuckle, who becomes the sixth mare to win the most prestigious prize over hurdles. The seven-year-old never looked likely to be beaten and came home the comfortable six and a half length winner over Sharjah, who was runner-up for the second year in succession.
Blackmore said: “I am speechless, to be honest. She is just so incredible. I just can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle! To me, this was never even a dream. It was so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life - to be in Cheltenham, riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle.
“There’s no deal about female jockeys anymore, I don’t think. If you want to be a jockey, you can be a jockey - drive on, you know. To young people out there, male or female, if you want to go and do something, do it, because for me standing here right now, it shows that literally anything can happen.”
SHISHKIN STUNS HIS RIVALS WITH SECOND FESTIVAL VICTORY
Stylish Shishkin recorded his second success at The Festival™ supporting WellChild when taking the Grade One Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase by 12 lengths.
The Marie Donnelly-owned seven-year-old landed the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 12 months ago and was too good for his four rivals.
Trainer Nicky Henderson, winning the contest for a record seventh time, said: “You always hope for it but you can never expect it. It is a strange place today and it’s going to be a strange week. It still doesn’t make it any easier watching them - it still gives you the same feeling. A winner is a winner here and they are very special.”
Winning jockey Nico de Boinville added: “I’m absolutely over the moon, I’m just delighted to be on a horse such as Shishkin. His profile is just amazing and he’s a fantastic horse. Thank you to [his owner] Mr Donnelly and his family - they’ve been really good to us, and I’m delighted to be here with the sun out.”
MULLINS APPRECIATES “MORE THAN PERFECT” START
As the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins knows the importance of getting a winner on the board early.
He was rightly delighted, then, to see Appreciate It win the first race of the week, as the 8-11 favourite coasted to an impressive 24-length victory in the Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
There are unlikely to be many easier victories this week and Mullins, who was recording his 73rd Festival success, described the performance as “just awesome”.
The Closutton trainer said of the seven year old’s victory: “It was more than a perfect start. I couldn’t believe that he won so easily. I couldn’t believe he was going so well.
“He was just awesome there. When Paul came in, he said he had so much in the tank — he was so happy.”
MANIA DESCRIBES FIRST FESTIVAL WIN AS “UNBELIEVABLE THRILL”
Ryan Mania described his first ever Cheltenham Festival winner as “an unbelievable thrill” after partnering Vintage Clouds to victory in the Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase at odds of 28-1.
The Grand National-winning jockey retired from race riding in 2014 at the age of 25 but returned to the saddle in October 2019.
He and the 11 year old grey Vintage Clouds were always in a prominent position and at the finish had five and a half lengths to spare over 100-30 favourite Happygolucky. It was a 12th Festival success for owner Trevor Hemmings and second for trainer Sue Smith.
Despite it coming in front of near-empty stands, Mania said it was a day he would never forget. He said: “It’s an unbelievable thrill. It’s a shame that my first Festival winner comes under these circumstances, but it truly doesn’t matter. It will be a very memorable day.
“I’m pretty sure this hasn’t sunk in yet, but in a way I have been able to take it in a bit more without the distraction of the crowds. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come and ride a Cheltenham winner, especially so soon after coming out of retirement, so I couldn’t be happier.”
TEARS TO CHEERS AS FOSTER LANDS FIRST CHELTENHAM PRIZE
Black Tears timed her run to perfection to snatch victory in the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, denying 10-11 favourite Concertista by a head.
The victory was a first for trainer Denise Foster, who has taken over the running of Cullentra House Stables and gave jockey Jack Kennedy his first of two winners on the day.
Lisa O’Neill, representing the winning trainer, said: “Denise was the first one on the phone and she was absolutely over the moon as it was her first Cheltenham winner and hopefully it won’t be her last.
“I think Jack Kennedy gave her a great ride. He took the paint off the rail and rode her for a bit of luck. She was beaten just over two lengths in the Coral Cup last year so to get her head in front this is great.
“She had that course form so there was no question about that and she was always going to be staying on having run over slightly further at the meeting last year."