Benie Des Dieux won a race of changing fortunes in the home straight, to land the Grade One OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Another small field of just nine went to post for this contest over 2 ½ miles.
The race got underway with last year’s winner Apple’s Jade straight into the lead from La Bague Au Roi and Indian Stream.
With the first couple of flights safely negotiated, Apple’s Jade held a length advantage over La Bague Au Roi, with Jer’s Girl to the inside and Indian Stream racing wider out.
There was little change in the order as the field set off with a circuit to race.
At the fifth flight though, Kayf Grace took a heavy fall from which she was thankfully straight up on her feet, along with jockey Nico De Boinville.
Meanwhile, La Bague Au Roi went on at the next from Apple’s Jade, with Jer’s Girl and Midnight Jazz, who had moved closer, as had Benie Des Dieux.
La Bague Au Roi set off down the hill for the final time with Apple’s Jade and Midnight Jazz in hot pursuit.
Two out, Apple’s Jade joined La Bague Au Roi and went on turning for home, with Midnight Tour a danger.
But Apple’s Jade was unable to dominate and Midnight Tour went on at the last, with Benie Des Dieux finishing to some effect. In behind, a bad error put pay to La Bague Au Roi’s chances.
Setting off up the hill, Midnight Tour and Davy Russell held the lead but Benie Des Dieux was still closing, while next to the rails, Apple’s Jade was rallying.
But it was Benie Des Dieux, racing wide apart from her rivals, who edged into the lead under Ruby Walsh, to give trainer Willie Mullins a remarkable ninth victory in the Mares’ Hurdle, just eclipsing Midnight Tour, with the rallying Apple’s Jade in third.
Mullins said: “I thought that was the ride of the week. Ruby was so good on her, to get her up the hill like that. She’s a big mare, a nice mare, and after her first win I nick-named her ‘Benie Des Douvan’ when I saw what she could do. I don’t know whether she is going to be as good as that but she’s four from four for us now.”
Rich Ricci said: “Benie Des Dieux jumps a fence brilliantly but the problem she has is when she jumps, she puts so much pressure on her hind-quarters and has the equivalent of a muscle tear.
“She is undefeated for us but has only run over fences until today. It was that sort of thing that led us to believe that we can’t keep her straight – we really wanted to run her in the Ryanair and, order to keep her sound, we decided that we would give hurdles a go.
“I think she is a wonderful mare and she jumps brilliantly. We will have to think about what we do next but, Jesus Christ – that was fantastic.
“I watched the last – I didn’t see anything else – but Joe Chambers told me that she missed one without losing much ground. What a brilliant ride by Ruby. I saw her starting to pick up at the last and thought, ‘Here we go, happy days’, because I knew that she would stay. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Ruby Walsh sealed a double on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival after Benie Des Dieux’s gutsy success in the Grade 1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old was unbeaten in three starts over fences for her Closutton handler and extended her unbeaten record to four out of four for Mullins following this win over timber.
The daughter of Great Pretender, stayed on powerfully after the final flight to reel in Alan King’s Midnight Tour to score by half-a-length.
Apple’s Jade, trained by Gordon Elliott, was a length back in third.
Victorious on Footpad in the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase earlier in the card, Walsh, recording his 58th victory at The Festival, said:
“Benie Des Dieux won a schooling hurdle at Thurles when Katie rode her – this black mare came out in the distance that we didn’t even know we had. Then we went chasing with her but she has had a few issues training.
“With Vroum Vroum Mag up in the air, Willie said that we needed something else and he has been targeting her at this for a while. David Casey schooled her a couple of times over hurdles but I had never sat on her until today. She is laden with stamina – I thought that she had a bit more gears but she really ground it out.
“She’s had a few issues training her but Willie had been targeting her at this race for a while.
“The one to beat was Apple’s Jade so we were all following her and seeing if we could beat her.
“I thought off the bend, I was well and truly stuffed, but it’s a long way from the bend to the final hurdle and they were stopping in front.
“She wandered around in front, but once she straightened up, she kept on nicely and the ground helped her today, as she went through it really well.
“She’s tough and she stayed really well. Apple’s Jade has run to a higher level of form, but horses aren’t machines and you can’t switch them on. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.”
Regarding Faugheen, sixth in the Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, Walsh commented: “Faugheen ran slow and I would imagine that it would be the three-mile race for him at Punchestown. He’s like all of us – as we get older, we slow down a little bit – and he has slowed down considerably.
“He has gone back past Wicklow Brave coming to the line and that’s the sign of an honest horse to me. He kept galloping all the way up to the winning post and I just think that he wants a good bit further through the race.”