Buveur DAir edges Melon to give Henderson and McManus another slice of Champion history

CHELTENHAM, England (AP) The opening day of the prestigious Cheltenham Festival was marred by the death of a horse in each of the final two races on Tuesday.

Mossback had to be put down after suffering a shoulder injury in a fall during the National Hunt Chase. Report To Base was put down after falling in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.

Geraghty, who had to miss last year's Festival through injury, said: "It's real winter conditions, very tacky down the back straight – as it's opened up it's become harder work. The ground made it the ultimate test, there's nowhere to hide.

Buveur DAir retained the Champion Hurdle title with a thrilling victory from Melon at the Cheltenham Festival.

The 4-6 favourite held on by a neck under jockey Barry Geraghty to give record-breaking trainer Nicky Henderson a seventh victory in the race.

Buveur DAir was passed by Melon on the uphill finish before battling back to triumph from the 7-1 shot, with 25-1 chance Mick Jazz in third.

"I missed one down the back, which I didn't expect. It was a proper race. The runner-up came and I thought he was coming to beat me, but he's battle hardened. He's as tough as nails and pulled it out.

The winners stablemate Charlie Parcs set a searing pace in the testing conditions and was followed by 2015 winner Faugheen before they both faded.

There was little to choose between the pair jumping the final flight and both fought tooth and nail all the way up the hill, but it was Buveur D'Air and Barry Geraghty who emerged victorious by a neck.

Footpad was a brilliant winner of the Arkle Chase after Ruby Walsh steadied his Willie Mullins-trained mount following an early blunder.

Nicky Henderson star retains his crown in thrilling finish to the Grade One feature on the opening day of the Festival and could bid to do the same in the Aintree Hurdle on Merseyside

And jockey Lizzie Kelly scored her first Cheltenham Festival victory as 5-1 favourite Coo Star Sivola, trained by her stepfather Nick Williams, landed the Ultima Handicap Chase.

Its so fantastic. Its the first horse I bought for Tim since Terry (Biddlecombe) died and its such a thrill, she said. I know the feeling, I know the atmosphere. Its just magic. Brian was just perfect with him.

Cheltenham 4.50 result: Willie Mullins completes a treble as Rathvinden wins National Hunt Chase

Buveur DAir became the sixth horse to win the two-mile Champion Hurdle more than once, but the seven-year-old was made to battle for victory.

Settled in mid-division, Mister Whitakers backers would not have been getting their hopes up as Rocklander led over the last, only for Jerry McGrath to sweep by on Rather Be. 

Geraghty always had his horse in the slipstream of the early pacesetters, but it was Paul Townend on the well-backed Mullins challenger Melon who posed the biggest threat.

I first saw this horse at the Costellos, the same place I bought Best Mate from. I saw him jump and I just loved the horse. He wasnt too expensive and hes such an athlete.

Buveur DAir retains Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham thriller

The two hurdlers went head to head up the home straight, roared on by a bumper crowd, before Buveur DAir got the better of the tussle.

“That was a great ride from Barry Geraghty,” said jockey Tom Scudamore, who was summarising for BBC Radio 5 live.

Henrietta Knight, who trained Best Mate to win three Gold Cups, bought the winner horse for Tim Radford, whose company Timico sponsor Fridays big race.

“You talk about being a goalhanger in football and the key to that is knowing the positioning to go and do that.

“It would have been very easy for Barry to allow Buveur DAir to jump the last and push too hard but he didnt and he has earned his keep. It was one of the best rides Ive ever seen.”

"He had a battle on his hands today and in a funny way thats the first race hes had this year. Its just been in the back of my mind and has always worried me.

It was a seventh Champion Hurdle for Henderson, and also for owner JP McManus. The Festivals all-time leading trainer has previously won with See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009) and Binocular (2010).

"Two very brave horses and two great jockeys – Im sure we got headed at the last and he was brave to come back.

Henderson, recording his 59th Festival victory, said: “It was a brilliant race. They were two very brave horses with two brave jockeys. This was a proper race and he showed his class.”

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Geraghty was ruled out of last years Festival after puncturing a lung and breaking six ribs in a fall.

The Willie Mullins-trained favourite 7-4 favourite Getabird set out to make all the running under Ruby Walsh, but he was a spent force before the home turn and Amy Murphys Betfair Hurdle hero Kalashnikov straightened up in front.

“I missed last season and it was a long year, but I cant complain. I thought he was coming to beat me, but my fella is battle-hardened and tough as nails,” said the jockey.

Tom Georges Summerville Boy, a 9-1 shot in the hands of Noel Fehily, was untidy at the second flight from the finish and also the last, but he devoured the hill to get up and beat Kalashnikov in the dying strides.

I think, ideally, we like our champions to bolt up, and this was very tight as Buveur DAir joined the likes of Hardy Eustace, Istabraq, See You Then and Sea Pigeon as a back-to-back champion.

Summerville Boy lunged late to claim a thrilling renewal of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, the first race of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.

His trainer quite reasonably put the narrow margin down to the quality of Melon, plus that after three easy races this was the first time the seven-year-old had really been tested – and, of course, he did come through it.

Fehily told ITV Racing: “Hes a wonderful horse and what a training performance by Tom George. This horse was absolutely cherry ripe today.

There will be talk of retirement for former Festival stars Faugheen (6th) and Yorkhill (pulled up), and if thats the decision, they go out with heads held high.

“He was my best chance of the day, but you need a lot of luck. I thought if he didnt fire today I might be struggling, but what a horse.

In the Arkle Chase, Footpad made a serious early error but Walsh bided his time as Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados battled it out at the front and came through for an impressive 14-length victory on the 5-6 favourite.

Jockey Walsh, who had only returned to racing from a broken leg five days ago, has more wins than any other rider at the meeting and this took his career tally to 57.

“It is wonderful. It is great to be back. It has been a long winter and you wonder if it is all worth it and then you get a winner here and you remember it all over again. The leg was all right. Physical pain can be managed.”

Walsh made it 58 when winning the OLBG Mares Hurdle for Mullins on Benie Des Dieux.The 9-2 chance beat outsider Midnight Tour (33-1) as 1-2 favourite Apples Jade could only finish third in the race she won last year.

Mullins enjoyed a 54-1 opening-day treble with his son Patrick winning the National Hunt Chase on Rathvinden.

On a day with several tight finishes, Rathvinden just edged out Ms Parfois to win the four-mile National Hunt Chase.

There was some sad news after the race as it was confirmed Mossback, trained by Gordon Elliott, had to be put down after suffering an injury.

Report To Base, trained by Evan Williams, suffered a fatal fall in the following race.

Victory for Kelly, the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over jumps – on Tea For Two in 2015 – was a form of Festival redemption.

She left the meeting dejected last year after being unseated from Tea For Two at the second fence after lining up as the first female rider in the showpiece Gold Cup for 33 years.

But the 24-year-old bore a wide smile this time thanks to a thrilling success in the Ultima Handicap Chase, edging out runner-up Shantou Flyer by just a neck.

“That uphill finish was so long. I cant believe it. Im speechless,” she said.

“Although I had a horrendous Cheltenham last year, you learn from that. I genuinely had written off the idea of me having a Festival winner. This is the cherry on top. I am delighted.”

Kelly, who is also working as a BBC Radio 5 live pundit this week, had been confident of her mounts chances.

Asked for her selection in a BBC Sport website preview, she said: “It would be wrong to not pick my own ride Coo Star Sivola. Hes sure to like the trip and ground. Im very excited to be riding him in this race I think its my best chance of a winner this week.”

The meeting began on the wettest ground for 36 years after persistent rain in the build-up, with the going described as heavy, soft in places.

But the clouds lifted and the sun shone as a crowd of around 65,000 gave out the traditional Cheltenham roar for the start of action at the Gloucestershire track.

And it was local trainer Tom George – based around 15 miles away at Slad – who triumphed in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle as Summerville Boy (9-1) denied Kalashnikov in a thrilling finish.

Favourite Getabird, for the Walsh-Mullins combination, faded after leading from the front and the winner – ridden by Noel Fehily – got up on the line after surviving some jumping errors including a bad mistake at the second last.

Former England striker-turned trainer Mick Channon celebrated a first Festival winner when the bottom weight Mister Whitaker (13-2) won the concluding Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase.

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