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Cheltenham Festival: Quevega makes it six on the spin

By Alysen Miller, CNN
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
Ruby Walsh rode Quevega to a sixth successive victory in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Ruby Walsh rode Quevega to a sixth successive victory in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cheltenham Festival began in England Tuesday
  • Vautour earns Supreme Novices' Hurdle success
  • Western Warhorse wins Arkle Challenge Trophy, Jezki takes Champions Hurdle
  • Michael Owen claims three successful winners

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(CNN) -- Flat racing has Royal Ascot; tennis has Wimbledon; football has the FA Cup.

But for fans of National Hunt racing -- a grueling form of the sport which combines speed, stamina and accuracy over a course of at least two miles with an array of imposing jumps -- there is no meeting like the Cheltenham Festival.

Although jumps racing carries a lower social status than flat racing in the United Kingdom, its following is arguably bigger.

What is unarguable is that its fans are as passionate, its jockeys as skilled and its horses as brave as any to be found in the Epsom Derby or Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

This year's meeting had been menaced by inclement weather, which threatened to turn the Gloucestershire course into a mud bath.

As if on cue, by the first day of the festival on Tuesday, the flood waters which had engulfed much of the west of England for the past month receded and a distinct flavor of spring was in the air. But despite the blue skies overhead, the event is taking place under a cloud.

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Racing is emerging from an "annus horribilis," following a doping scandal at one of its largest training operations, Godolphin.

Although the glossy version of the sport as practiced by Sheikh Mohammed's flat racing empire may seem like a distant cousin to the earthier winter form, racing's other code has not emerged unscathed.

One of the fancied runners in Friday's Gold Cup -- the highlight of the festival and the most prestigious jumps race in the British racing calendar -- is trained by a man who has been charged with possession of anabolic steroids and who is due in court next week.

Last Instalment is one of three runners fielded by Philip Fenton, who faces eight charges of possessing banned animal remedies which were found by the Irish Department of Agriculture in 2012.

All three of his Cheltenham entries have been cleared to run by the British Horseracing Authority, after blood and hair samples found they have been "clean" for at least the past 12 months. But should Last Instalment or any of Fenton's other runners win this week, it will be publicity the sport can scarcely afford.

Nevertheless, even these lingering storm clouds could not dampen the famous Cheltenham roar, the battle cry which goes up amid a flurry of fur and tweed to mark the beginning of jumps racing's biggest week. Nor, even, could the injury-enforced absence of two of jumps racing's brightest stars -- the imperious Sprinter Sacre and the plucky Cue Card.

Accents from both sides of the Irish Sea can be heard at Cheltenham. National Hunt racing originated in Ireland in the 18th century and the Irish remain devoted to this form of the sport.

As such, the Cheltenham Festival is famed for the rivalry between Britain and Ireland. This year, that rivalry is being formally recognized with the newly-commissioned Prestbury Cup, to be awarded to the country with the most winners and named after the first Cheltenham Festival, organized in 1902 at Prestbury Park racecourse.

On this occasion it was first blood to Ireland as Vautour and Ruby Walsh teamed up to give trainer Willie Mullins a decisive victory in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

"We knew he was a good horse but I wasn't quite expecting that," Mullins told reporters.

"He was a bit free over the first couple of hurdles but once he relaxed a bit and Ruby had accepted that he wanted to get on with it, he let him gallop and use his stride. Next thing you know, he was on a different set of rails to the other horses!"

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The same combination nearly struck gold again moments later with Champagne Fever in the Arkle Challenge Trophy but were pipped on the line by David Pipe's 33-1 shot Western Warhorse, ridden by Tom Scudamore.

"I'm surprised, relieved and very happy to have a winner," said Pipe. "Tom gave him a canny ride. You could sense Tom felt he was more than a 33-1 shot and had a bit of a chance. It's great to have a winner here because it is so hard."

In the day's feature race, the Champion Hurdle, 9-1 shot Jezki led home a memorable one-two for leading owner J P McManus, edging out My Tent Or Yours, ridden by man of the hour AP McCoy.

"It's fantastic and a great to be in this position," trainer Jessica Harrington told reporters after watching Barry Geraghty ride her horse home to victory.

"He's a great favorite of mine and Barry has a great record on him."

The race however was marred by a fatal injury to Our Conor, which had to be put down after falling.

Owner Barry Connell told reporters: "It's is very sad, as he was such a young horse at the beginning of his career.

"He had already shown what enormous potential he had.

"It is unusual for him, as jumping has been his forte and it was such a surprise to see him come down."

Read: Michael Owen the 'horse whisperer'

Meanwhile, former England football star Michael Owen has already made a successful transition to leading racehorse owner -- he has even had a winner at Royal Ascot -- but perhaps his latest reinvention should be as tipster.

On the opening day of Cheltenham, Owen tipped three winners in a row -- Holywell in the opening handicap, Jezki in the Champion Hurdle and Quevega, who won the Mares' Hurdle for a sixth successive year, making her the most successful horse in festival history.

All eyes will surely be on Owen's tips when the second day of the meeting gets underway on Wednesday.

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