There was a first Cheltenham Festival win for Lizzie Kelly, as the novice Coo Star Sivola just held on to win the Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
A field of 18 went to post for this three mile, one furlong contest, remembered as the Ritz Club Chase.
Cogry and Vintage Clouds were among the early leaders as the field reached the first fence, which they all safely negotiated.
Settling down, Yala Enki went on from Vintage Clouds and Coo Star Sivola, with Shantou Flyer and Beware The Bear close up as the field raced away from the stands for the first time.
Racing into the straight with a circuit completed, Yala Enki and Vintage Clouds led a bunched field, with Coo Star Sivola, Shantou Flyer and Eamon An Cnoic close up.
Vintage Clouds went back into a narrow lead as the field set off on their final circuit, with Eamon An Cnoic next as Yala Enki made an error at the first ditch down the back.
Eamon An Cnoic pressed on and went three lengths clear of Coo Star Sivola, as Vintage Clouds began to tire, with Shantou Flyer and Yala Enki still in touch.
At the top of the hill though, the bottom weight Eamon An Cnoic was still in front of Coo Star Sivola, with Shantou Flyer going well and then Vintage Clouds and Casse Tete.
A mistake from Eamon An Cnoic saw Lizzie Kelly go on at the third last with Shantou Flyer giving chase over two out.
Heading to the last, Coo Star Sivola had a three length advantage and Shantou Flyer appeared beaten to the inside.
However, as Kelly and Coo Star Sivola set up the long climb to the finish, Shantou Flyer, with the rails for guidance, began to rally and close.
It got tight at the line, but Coo Star Sivola had first run to give Lizzie Kelly one of her biggest career successes to date.
Third home came the gallant Vintage Clouds, with Beware The Bear staying on for fourth.
For trainer Nick Williams, there must have been a sense of relief at the finish, having seen his Maljimar agonisingly denied in this very race by Wichita Lineman back in 2009.
A delighted Kelly said: “I came here today and it was like I had grown up five years. We feel all the pressure but I think last year here with Tea For Two falling in the Gold Cup and picking the wrong horse in the Fred Winter, it was an educational year.
“After last year, I made my peace with never being a Cheltenham Festival winner and now I am. I am shocked and don’t really know what to say for the first time in my life!
“Thank you so much to guys at home, who put in work like dogs, and the owners Marcus and Karen.
“Coo Star Sivola has been crying out for three miles and fences, and he had it today. My boyfriend Ed, who is not here today, has been banging on and on about this horse for months and he was right. I am just thrilled.
“The people behind me are one in a million and I have several of them. My mum has a hell of a lot to play as part of the gang and so does Nick who, at 62, still rides out this horse nearly everyday.
“This time around, I was much more relaxed and I had a dream ride. Coo Star Sivola travelled really well and jumped from fence to fence. He made a slight mistake coming down the hill and so he wasn’t travelling as well as he was before the mistake, so that forced my hand to go on.
“I knew he would gallop all the way up the hill, but that was like the longest hill in the world. I was half-watching the camera so I could see what was coming, but he felt it too and it just feels so surreal.
“Although it was a horrendous Cheltenham for me last year, you learn from that and I’m delighted that the owners have been so good to me. They have never thought about using other jockeys and that gives you so much confidence entering a race like this.
“I’m just thrilled, we’ve always felt a lot of the horse and maybe he could run in a Ladbrokes Trophy and possibly even a Gold Cup in time.
“I’ve got a nice ride on Esprit De Somoza in the Fred Winter and Tea For Two in the Gold Cup, so hopefully he doesn’t fall at the second fence again, but I’m excited about the rest of the week.”
Williams coos over Sivola
Winning trainer Nick Williams stood in Cheltenham’s no.1 spot after Coo Star Sivola’s Ultima Handicap Chase victory, and found himself talking to just one journalist.
The rest of the press pack had homed in on the rider, his ever-quotable step-daughter Lizzie Kelly, who had just ridden her first Cheltenham Festival winner.
Coo Star Sivola, a six-year-old owned by Babbit Racing, won by a neck and six lengths from staying-on Shantou Flyer, Vintage Clouds and Beware The Bear.
Williams said: “For a six-year-old novice that was fantastic, but he has always run well here in the past, having been third in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle and then fourth last year. He’s a beautifully balanced horse – I ride him every day, so I know that – and he’s suited by the undulations here.”
Williams was denied a victory in this race when Maljimar was caught near the line in 2009. He said: “Maljimar was three lengths ahead jumping the last and we were five lengths ahead today, so it would have been heart-breaking to have been beaten again. We were getting caught on the run-in and we only just held on.
“Lizzie had to be in a perfect position – she needed to be close up but not actually making it. I told her just get a good place at the tape and jump the first fence in the first three or four – and she did.
“After Coo Star Sivola won at Exeter, which he had to do to justify coming here, I thought this was the right race for him. That was his first start over three miles at Exeter and the way he won there gave him an outstanding chance in this.
“I have no plans for him – whether we now go for a three-mile conditions race I’m not sure, but long term he could well make into a really good staying chaser, and possibly a National horse. That good balance would help him in a race like that.”
This was Williams’ second winner at The Festival – his first came with Flying Tiger in the 2017 Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
Shantou Flyer came within inches of giving Richard Hobson – who trains locally to Cheltenham at Little Rissington – a first Festival winner when finishing second to Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Shantou Flyer, was ridden by James Bowen and was beaten by a neck.
“So near! It’s not past the line you want to have your head in front – it’s too late then!” said Hobson. “It was a great run. He’s so tough and is such a pleasure to train and to be around. He just puts everything into it. He had a few niggles early on in the season and we corrected a few things, and since then he has been a model of consistency.
“We were really hopeful that out of our five runners here this week, this one was our best chance. That’s just the way it goes.”
The trainer later suggested that Shantou Flyer could yet turn out in Friday’s Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Bowen said: “That was gutting, really. He’s run an absolute blinder – we just missed the last fence and that’s cost us the race.”
Vintage Clouds, who came home third in the three mile and one furlong Ultima Handicap Chase. On the opening day at The Festival, may go to the Scottish Grand National over four miles next.
Trevor Hemmings, who bred and owns the eight-year-old Cloudings grey, said: “We will wait and see how the horse comes out of this but we may well have another go at the Scottish National, he ran there last year (seventh) and given another year he would be a horse for the Grand National. I would have to consider that.
“It was a superb performance today.”
Sue Smith, who trains Vintage Clouds, added : “I am really pleased with him. I think he jumped really well.
“Danny (Cook, jockey) said they quickened away from him. Maybe he should have made more use of him but obviously that is up to Danny when he is on board.
“Generally the horse stays a lot further than three miles one and he did keep coming.
“It was a competitive race and all in all I am really pleased.
“Possibly the Scottish National might be next, depending on the ground.”