Irish trainers, aided by a four-timer for Willie Mullins, won five races on the opening day of jump racing’s showpiece meeting with Ruby Walsh riding three favourites to victory in a memorable bookie bashing.
Sprinter Sacre was imperious when winning the two-mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase two years ago but missed last year’s renewal as injuries kept him off the track for a year.
He returned at Ascot in January – finishing second to another Champion Chase hope Dodging Bullets – but Henderson likes the nine-year-old’s chances as he seeks to regain his title, a feat only previously achieved by Royal Relief and Moscow Flyer.
“He’s not the same horse as two years ago but he’s still a very good horse,” said Henderson.
“When he was at his best he was unbeatable but we want our crown back and we are optimistic.”
Gary Moore is equally confident that favourite Sire De Grugy can retain his title, though he has also had his troubles since winning here at Prestbury 12 months ago.
“He’s got a serious chance – there will be heaps of pace in the race and that will suit us – the faster they go, the better,” said Moore.
“His preparation has been interrupted but he’s only improving. The amount of people who want him to win is unbelievable. He has a massive following.”
British champion trainer Paul Nicholls brings both Dodging Bullets and Mr Mole to the start line after both have recorded impressive performance this season.
Dodging Bullets should be favourite on form but the reputations of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy relegate the horse, who was bred by jockey Frankie Dettori, to third favourite in the market.
“The others are favourites because they’ve been champions, we should be favourites if you look at results this season,” said Nicholls, who admitted concerns about fast drying ground plus concerns about Dodging Bullets being seen as an early season horse, who doesn’t perform at his best in spring.
However, despite high home hopes the Festival’s opening acts showed that is doesn’t pay to forget Mullins, who brings Champagne Fever to the line as owner Rich Ricci looks to follow yesterday’s successes with Douvan and Faugheen.
Champagne Fever has that magical ingredient on his resume – Festival form. He’s won the Champion Bumper, Supreme Novices’ and last year finished second by a head in the Arkle Chase when looking a certain winner.
“Dodging Bullets certainly has the best form going into the race, but I think we go there with a great chance to win it,” said Mullins.
“He’s a wonderful horse. I love his attitude and he loves Cheltenham.”
Meanwhile, Mullins reports his stable stars are stiff but in fine health after yesterday’s successes.
Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Glens Melody claimed the grade one feature races on the first day’s card while stablemate Annie Power – the hot favourite in the Mares’ Hurdle – dramatically fell when leading into the last.
“All the horses seem in good form. There’s a few that are a bit stiff and sore but they will be fine. It’s nothing that any athlete wouldn’t be after a football match,” he said.
“Annie Power is grand. She’s here and she’s fine. It’s unfortunate that she tipped up, but that’s racing isn’t it?”
Yesterday’s winning selections included Josses Hill (12/1 e/w), Faugheen (4/5) and 8-1 winner The Druids Nephew.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas