Posted: 17th Mar 2016
Black Hercules (centre) wins the JLT Novices' ChasePICTURE: Getty Images
Report: Cheltenham, Thursday
JLT Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 2m3f198y, 5yo+
AN EVENTFUL JLT Novices' Chase was won by Black Hercules as Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh landed the opening race at Cheltenham for the second day in a row.
The result was partly overshadowed by a controversial start. Zabana was side-on as the tape was raised and unseated Davy Russell as he whipped round. In doing so he hampered Outlander, who eventually exited, along with Garde La Victoire, four out when under pressure.
Amid all the turmoil, Walsh kept his head on Black Hercules, jumping and travelling best and eventually prevailing in a long battle with Bristol De Mai and L'Ami Serge.
The first three were locked together turning in and Walsh confessed that victory had been far from certain.
"In mid air [at the second last] I was worried. I thought ‘this is going to end in tears’ but he’s tough," said Walsh.
"He jumped super and travelled really well and dug deep in the end. L’Ami Serge quickened away from me going to two out but he dived right across in front of me. My horse was clever and half stalled himself and when I got out and around him he rattled down to the last and he was nimble at it."
The win was a 50th for Walsh at the festival. On reaching the milestone he said: "Amazing. When I joined Pat Taaffe on 25 [winners] I thought it was unbelievable but 50 is incredible.
"I’m in a privileged position to ride for Willie Mullins now and I rode for Paul Nicholls in the past, and if it wasn't for people like that I wouldn't be anywhere near that figure now."
Ruby Walsh salutes the crowd after riding his 50th festival winnerPICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Russell unhappy with start
Zabana's jockey Davy Russell was visibly frustrated as the field left him at the start and he said afterwards: "It’s a poor show. I’m disappointed for the owner and the trainer as we thought the horse was going to run a big race. We didn’t get the chance to do that.
"It was obvious we were going to take a turn. Someone cantered at the tape and pulled up so we had to come back off the tape. The only way I could come back was to turn around. Did they miss me or what? It’s disappointing."
Several firms refunded bets on Zabana. BetVictor, SkyBet and 32Red refunded in full, while Hills did so as a free bet while Boylesports and Paddy Power did the same with a ceiling of £100 and £25 respectively.
Mullins excited about next season
Black Hercules was introduced at a best-priced 25-1 for next year's Gold Cup with BetVictor. Trainer Willie Mullins was cautiously optimistic about the horse's chances in open company.
"My first thoughts would that he would be a Ryanair horse," said Mullins. "He seems tailor-made for that. I’m thinking does he stay? Maybe he has too much speed to stay [the Gold Cup trip]. We’ll start in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown next season and go from there."
Talking about the decision to switch him to this race from the four-miler, Mullins said: "I thought this horse is going to be too keen over four miles so I thought about the RSA and then I thought maybe it’d be better to go for the JLT.
"I was thinking it was the wrong decision coming down to the second last when he appeared to be beaten. Maybe he was just idling though as he picked up again when the other horse came to him.
"Patrick my son and nephew Emmet bought him to turnover and after he won his point-to-point they sold him on to Mr Wylie, so I’d like to congratulate them."
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