Cheltenham Festival: Penhill wins Stayers' Hurdle for Willie Mullins as Irish dominate

Penhill is owned by Brighton chairman Tony Bloom, hence jockey Paul Townend wearing blue and white
Penhill is owned by Brighton chairman Tony Bloom, hence jockey Paul Townend wearing blue and white
Cheltenham Festival
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Date: 13-16 March
Coverage: Full coverage on BBC Radio 5 live; continued on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text updates on BBC Sport website

Penhill and Balko Des Flos were the big winners as the Irish dominated day three of the Cheltenham Festival.

The Stayers' Hurdle was won by Penhill for trainer Willie Mullins, who later claimed a record 61st Festival victory with Laurina.

Balko Des Flos (8-1) beat odds-on favourite Un De Sceaux to land the Ryanair Chase, with popular veteran Cue Card pulled up.

Missed Approach won the seventh, and final, race to deny an unprecedented clean sweep of wins for Irish-trained horses.

Balko Des Flos, ridden by Davy Russell for trainer Henry de Bromhead, gave owner Michael O'Leary a first victory in the race his airline sponsors.

O'Leary had a day to remember, with victories in the opening three races for his Gigginstown House Stud - Shattered Love and Delta Work also winning.

The latter pair are trained by Gordon Elliott, who completed another treble - after three wins on Wednesday - with 5-1 favourite The Storyteller in the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate.

That was also a third victory on the day, known as St Patrick's Thursday, for jockey Russell.

Record-breaking Mullins triumphs with Penhill

Mullins' first Cheltenham Festival winner was Tourist Attraction in 1995
Mullins' first Cheltenham Festival winner was Tourist Attraction in 1995

The 12-1 chance Penhill, ridden by Paul Townend, put Mullins level with Nicky Henderson on the list of all-time leading Festival trainers.

It demonstrated the skill of the Irish trainer, bringing the horse here after 323 days off, although he was typically humble in his reaction.

"A lot of credit has to go to Holly Conte, who leads up him up, rides him and does everything with him," Mullins told BBC Radio 5 live.

"She has virtually trained Penhill herself."

On his record win, he said: "It's unbelievable. When you start training you hope for one winner here.

"This isn't something we ever dreamt of because we thought we couldn't do that with a base in Ireland."

In the Stayers' Hurdle, Sam Spinner was sent off the 9-4 favourite and led for a long way to raise the possibility of a fairytale ending to the comeback stories of his trainer and jockey.

Trainer Jedd O'Keeffe has overcome cancer and a financial crisis, while jockey Joe Colliver has rebuilt his career after a spell in prison for lying about the circumstances of a car crash.

But Colliver's mount could not keep up with the pace as challengers emerged in the latter stages, chiefly in the shape of Penhill and Supasundae.

It was Penhill - owned by Brighton and Hove Albion chairman Tony Bloom - who found more to give Mullins a sixth win of the meeting.

Number seven came via Laurina, who trounced her rivals by 18 lengths to win the mares' novices hurdle.

Once again, Cheltenham attracted some famous famous - and singer Rod Stewart serenaded his wife, Penny Lancaster, on her birthday live on BBC Radio 5 live after being given the microphone by reporter Derek Thompson
Once again, Cheltenham attracted some famous faces - and singer Rod Stewart serenaded his wife, Penny Lancaster, on her birthday live on BBC Radio 5 live after being given the microphone by reporter Derek Thompson

Analysis

BBC horse racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght

Willie Mullins has been praised for all sorts of winners over the years, but getting Penhill to win a Cheltenham feature without a prep race after such an absence is right up there.

So much can go wrong in this type of situation. You can only do a certain amount on the gallops, and preparations must be precisely worked out. Bravo!

Sam Spinner ran well, but it's also been nigh on impossible to lead all the way (his style) this week.

Earlier, Cue Card being pulled up was worrying; he's fine, but many fans will be hoping he's retired now, leaving behind a long list of happy memories.

Balko Des Flos wins as Cue Card pulled up

Michael O'Leary was visibly delighted that one of his horses won the race he sponsors
Michael O'Leary was visibly delighted that one of his horses won the race he sponsors

Last year's winner Un De Sceaux was widely expected to follow up in the Ryanair Chase, but had to settle for second behind Balko Des Flos.

The winner travelled sweetly for Russell and surged to a four-and-a-half-length victory.

O'Leary has backed the race since 2006, and owned the runner-up four times.

"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," he said.

The 2013 winner Cue Card, appearing at his seventh Festival, was never at his fluent best and was pulled up by jockey Paddy Brennan.

Trainer Colin Tizzard said no immediate decision would be made about the future of the horse, who is nearing retirement, aged 12.

Russell and Elliott on a roll

Gordon Elliott celebrates a victory with teenage jockey Jack Kennedy
Gordon Elliott celebrates a victory with teenage jockey Jack Kennedy

The Storyteller's triumph sealed a 377-1 treble for Russell and continued the fine form of Elliott.

Shattered Love (4-1) got the ball rolling in the JLT Novices' Chase to provide a third win of the week for jockey Jack Kennedy, who at 18 is looking like a star for years to come.

Elliott, last year's leading trainer, enjoyed a 1-2 in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle as Russell and Delta Work edged out Barry Geraghty on stablemate Glenloe by a nose.

With one day of the 2018 meeting left, Elliott is on six wins and Mullins has seven from a total of 21 races.

"I can't believe it - six winners in Cheltenham. It just shows the horses we have in Ireland," said Elliott.

Missed Approach - trained in Lambourn, Berkshire, by Warren Greatrex, thwarted the Irish clean sweep under a front-running ride from Noel McParlan.

The 8-1 shot produced a fine leap at the final fence and kept on tenaciously to score from the Mullins-trained favourite Mall Dini.

"It's nice to get one back for Britain, but the Irish guys are brilliant trainers," said Greatrex.

The annual Irish v British contest for winners is over already - Ireland lead 15-6, with seven races left on Gold Cup day.

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