Summerville Boy confirmed his superiority over Kalashnikov as the Tolworth Hurdle one-two finished in the same positions in the Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The opening race of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival was greeted with the traditional roar from the stands for a race that for once in recent times, did not disappoint in the quantity of the field.
As the tapes went up, there was much interest in how the course had taken the significant and persistent rainfall since the snows of just a few days previous.
It was also an opportunity to gage the form of the leading stables.
The grey Debuchet jumped off into the early lead with Getabird and First Flow prominent as the field cleared the first.
Heading to the second, Getabird had pulled his way to the front from First Flow and Kalashnikov, with Paloma Blue to the inside and Debuchet still prominent.
Ruby Walsh and Getabird took the field out into the country with a length lead from First Flow and Paloma Blue, with Kalashnikov matching strides with this pair and then Debuchet and Shoal Bay.
David Bass moved First Flow up to join Getabird at the fourth and the front two moved a couple of lengths clear of Kalashnikov and Paloma Blue.
At the flight at the top of the hill, First Flow jumped erratically to his right, giving Getabird a narrow lead as the field began to race downhill, with Shoal Bay dropping away.
Heading downhill, Kalashnikov went on from Getabird at the second last, where Summerville Boy, making ground at the time, made a bad error.
But Kalashnikov stormed into the home straight with the lead, chased by Mengli Khan, with Summerville Boy making ground back up.
Kalashnikov took the last in front and Jack Quinlan must have been dreaming of Cheltenham Festival glory. Further back, Slate House took a crashing fall.
But Summerville Boy and Noel Fehily, who had given his mount time to recover from that blunder, began to close.
Inside the final half a furlong, Summerville Boy got his head in front and went on to confirm his Tolworth Hurdle form with Kalanshnikov, winning by about a length.
Mengli Khan came home third and behind these was Paloma Blue and Claimantakinforgan.
For winning trainer Tom George, it has been a long time between Cheltenham Festival victories, his previous success coming with Galileo (not the Derby winner) in the 2002 Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle.
George said: “After he made those two or three mistakes, I thought we would be doing well to get in the first four, and he just kept picking up again. I suppose he won by four lengths going away at Sandown and without those mistakes he would have done the same today. But you can’t knock him for what he’s done – he’s still an inexperienced horse.
“To give Noel [Fehily, who rode Summerville Boy] his due, he got beaten on him early on in the season round here and he said that day that none of those horses would ever beat us with a true-run gallop, and he was correct. The horse has taken a lot of switching off at home, as well. He’s ridden by one of my best riders, an Indian lad called Singh, and he’s absolutely made that horse. He told me he would win a Grade One.”
Asked about what he thought might lie ahead for the horse, George replied: “I’m sure [owner] Roger Brookhouse and I will hatch a few plans but let’s just enjoy today. He was very, very ready for today so whether that might just empty him a bit, I don’t know, but we’ve done the job we needed to.”
Roger Brookhouse, owner of Summerville Boy, said: “That feels very good! We thought the horse had a very good engine and we didn’t think the ground would be a bother to him. You want to stay in this and he’s certainly done it. He made a mistake at the second-last and the last and he still got back up.”
Summer arrives late for Fehily
Noel Fehily was the envy of his weighing room colleagues when landing The Festival’s opening race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Fehily scored on Summerville Boy, his sixth Festival winner and a second for trainer Tom George, whose previous success came with Galileo in 2002. The winning owner, Roger Brookhouse, bought Summerville Boy at Goffs UK’s Spring Sale after the horse had won a bumper in Ireland.
Mistakes at the final two hurdles did not help the winner’s cause, but he plugged on dourly and collared runner-up Kalashnikov near the line to score by a neck, with a further length and three-quarters back to third-placed Mengli Khan.
Fehily said: “Summerville Boy is a wonderful horse. What a training performance from Tom George – this horse was absolutely cherry-ripe today.
“I was nearly off him at the second-last, where Getabird came across me slightly and it was just enough to put him off – he just dropped his back legs on landing.
“How we came back from there I don’t know, because we must have lost four or five lengths at that point. It was a great comeback.
“He wasn’t great at the last either, although he did that when winning at Sandown and it didn’t stop him.
“He’s a very good horse and he’s settling better – the earplugs just helped him a bit today. He’s growing up all the time and Tom has been very happy with him during the past few weeks. It’s come off and it feels great.
“It’s a great start to get a winner early at The Festival – it is just magic. To win the first just helps you settle in for the rest of the week.
“That Tolworth form has stood up really well – Kalashnikov has finished second again.
“Kalashnikov is a great horse – a Betfair Hurdle winner which is a difficult race for a novice – and that is rock solid form. It is tremendous we came out on top today.”
Murphy, one of Britain’s youngest trainers at 25 years old, commented: “I’m so proud of Kalashnikov. He travelled brilliantly throughout and he went through the ground as well.
“The hill can find plenty of horses out and he just tired up the hill. He winged the last and I was hoping that he would on, but Summerville Boy is a good horse, so we’re happy to just finish second in a Grade One.
“He’s been a superstar this season and I’m absolutely delighted with how things have gone and his performance today.
“He’s a really exciting horse and that will be his final run of the year. To finish second in two Grade Ones and win a Betfair Hurdle is a brilliant season and he’ll be an exciting horse for next season.
“We’ll definitely go chasing next season and we’re looking forward to that.”
Kalashnikov’s jockey Jack Quinlan added: “He has run a blinder. It’s another superb effort and he travelled so well throughout.
“He will be even better on decent ground and we’re looking forward to fences next season.
“We’re extremely proud of him and he’s a credit to the yard.”
Jack Kennedy, rider of the third Mengli Khan added: “He’s run a cracker. I think he’ll be a better horse on a sounder surface as the ground might have just found him out at the end.”
JOCKEYS AFTER THE FIRST
Noel Fehily, jockey of the winner Summerville Boy, said: “Soft with the odd heavy patch.”
Jack Quinlan, on board second placed Kalashnikov, said: “The going is heavy, soft in places. It is wet so they are getting through it.”
Jack Kennedy, partner of third placed Mengli Kahn, said: “Heavy.”
Nico de Boinville, on board Claimantakinforgan, said: “Dead and tacky going – horrible.”
David Bass, rider of First Flow, said: “Very soft.”
Ruby Walsh, jockey of Getabird, said: “Soft.”
Conor O’Farrell, partner of Golden Jeffrey, said: “Heavy.”
Robbie Power, rider of Lostintranslation, said: “Heavy.”
Sean Houlihan, partner of Saxo Jack, said: “Heavy.”
Paul Townend, on board Sharjah, said: “Heavy.”
Harry Cobden, rider of Slate House, said: “Soft, heavy in places.”
J J Slevin, partner of Us And Them, said: “Proper soft ground.”
Richard Johnson, jockey of Western Ryder, said: “Soft and very hard work.”
Sean Bowen, on board Simply The Betts, said: “It is tacky and dead.”
Jonathan Burke, rider of Dame Rose, said: “Heavy.”
Tom Scudamore, partner of Shoal Bay, said: “Heavy.”
Denis O’Reagan, on board Khuda, said: “Very heavy.”