BALKO GOES WITH THE FLOS TO GIVE O'LEARY ELUSIVE RYANAIR WIN
Davy Russell recorded a 62/1 double on day three of the Cheltenham Festival following the impressive victory of Balko Des Flos in the G1 Ryanair Chase.
Successful aboard Delta Work in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle earlier, Russell delivered a confident ride aboard 8/1 chance Balko Des Flos, who travelled kindly throughout the two mile and five furlong event.
Trained by Henry de Bromhead, the seven-year-old son of Balko kept on gamely to score by four and a half-lengths from Willie Mullins' Un De Sceaux (8/11 favourite) in second.
Ryanair owner Michael O'Leary, winning the race that he sponsors for the first time, 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 G1 JLT Novices' Chase) and Delta Work (6/1 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle).
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 28] 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.
"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.
"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 this morning 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
It had been a long wait with multiple near-misses behind him but finally Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, won the 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.
Ryanair has sponsored the race since 2006 and O'Leary has owned the runner-up four times through Gigginstown House Stud - Mossbank (2008), First Lieutenant (2013), Valseur Lido (2016) and Sub Lieutenant (2017). He has also had the third in both 2015 (Don Cossack) and 2016 (Road To Riches).
"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.
"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 One 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.
"I thought he'd want better ground and I don't think Un De Sceaux ran up to his best form, for whatever reason. It's nice to finish in front of him for once. Age counted against Cue Card so the race ended up more open than we thought beforehand. He got a beautiful ride.
"If the ground had been good I'd have thought he had a chance. But I don't think this is as testing as real soft ground in Ireland. When it's soft/heavy here, it's like good-to-firm for the Irish!
"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. There have been some good winners of the race so that's good for the airline.
"If I started worrying about putting up the money for Jump racing I'd have given up 15 years ago! That's not why you do it, you do it for days like this."
DE BROMHEAD: 'HE MIGHT BE A GOLD CUP HORSE'
In the press conference following the Ryanair Chase, Henry de Bromhead elaborated on Balko Des Flos' victory in the Grade One two-mile, five-furlong championship contest.
The Gigginstown House stud-owned seven-year-old, ridden by Davy Russell, beat 8/11 odds-on favourite Un De Sceaux (Willie Mullins) by four and a half lengths at 8/1.
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. I thought our chances of upsetting it [the form] were slipping. But he got such a cool ride off Davy. He got into such a lovely rhythm; his jumping was brilliant.
"The fresh ground that they are racing on today and tomorrow is much nicer than the ground they have been running on for the past two days, and the rain last night loosened it up and it helped our fellow go through it."
Asked what he thought the future might hold 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 One 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. We lost some good horses and we gained some brilliant horses, and we really appreciate their support. 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]."
Asked for his assessment of the week until Balko Des Flos won the Ryanair Chase, de Bromhead answered: "It was fine. I suppose Petit Mouchoir and Monalee were two we thought had big chances. It probably didn't go right for Petit Mouchoir in the Racing Post Arkle and Monalee was beaten by a very good horse in the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase [Presenting Percy]. My bubble was burst a bit with Monalee yesterday - I do believe he is very good still, but the way Presenting Percy beat him was very impressive.
"As long as you are getting into the top end of the paddock [into the winner's enclosure] things are going ok, but you always want a winner at these meetings and it's fantastic to get one."
Balko Des Flos was the trainer's fifth winner at The Festival.
2.50pm Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m 4f 166y
1 BALKO DES FLOS (FR) HENRY DE BROMHEAD, IRELAND 11ST 10LB DAVY RUSSELL 8/1
2 Un de Sceaux (FR) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Paul Townend 8/11 Fav
3 Cloudy Dream (IRE) Ruth Jefferson 11st 10lb Brian Hughes 10/1
4 Sub Lieutenant (IRE) (Tongue Strap) Henry de Bromhead, Ireland 11st 10lb Sean Flanagan 18/1
5 Frodon (FR) (Tongue Strap) Paul Nicholls 11st 10lb Sam Twiston-Davies 9/1
PU BEF 12 Cue Card (Tongue Strap) Colin Tizzard 11st 10lb Paddy Brennan 9/2
Non-Runner: Douvan (Self Certificate, Other)
Distances: 4½, 8, 15, 9
Henry de Bromhead - 5th winner at The Festival
Davy Russell - 21st winner at The Festival
Gigginstown House Stud - 24th winner at The Festival
First success in the Ryanair Chase for sponsor Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud. Gigginstown has previously owned the runner-up four times - Mossbank (2008), First Lieutenant (2013), Valseur Lido (2016) and Sub Lieutenant (2017). It also had the third in both 2015 (Don Cossack) and 2016 (Road To Riches).
BetBright Cup - standings after 17 races
Ireland 12 Great Britain 5
UN DES SECOND
Un Des Sceaux was sent of the 8/11 favourite for the £350.000 Grade One Ryanair Chase but met with only the second defeat of his career when coming home four lengths adrift of the 8/1 shot and winner Balko Des Flos.
Willie Mullins, Ireland's champion jump trainer, 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."
Cloudy Dream, eight lengths back in third, also pleased his connections, with owner Trevor Hemmings commenting: "That was nice wasn't it.
"The ground wasn't at it's best for the horse today - but he ran well and that is all that matters so I am quietly pleased.
"We will have a look at Sandown and Liverpool for him next.
Brian Hughes, jockey of the Cloudings grey, added: "He ran well.
"He would be a better horse on better ground but we had a good race."
Cue Card safe and sound
Cue Card, having his seventh appearance at The Festival today when sent off the 9/2 second favourite in the Ryanair Chase, led for five fences but Paddy Brennan pulled up the 12-year-old before the 12th fence after he dropped back to be last of the six runners.
Cue Card has won two races at The Festival, the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 2010 and the 2013 Ryanair Chase, but fell at the third last in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup in both 2016 and 2017.
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? And I wheeled him clean out. He is there and we will have to speak to connections.
"His run at Ascot was on decent ground and today wasn't so decent. We will just have to see what the future brings.
"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: "It was sad to see Cue Card stop so quickly. The first half of the race, I thought he was going lovely, then he dropped right back to last and Paddy said he had to make a split second decision on whether to pull up or jump the next.
"He is as bright as 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. If something comes to light, I will keep everyone informed, but I would be surprised because he walked away a happy chap.
"The last thing anyone of us want to see is him running around like that."