Espoir D’Allen produced a coming-of-age performance to claim a brilliant victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
A field of 10 runners went to post for the two-mile showpiece and much of the pre-race chat focused on dual winner Buveur D’Air being taken on by Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade was the marginal favourite at 7-4 and challenged last year’s runner-up Melon for the lead throughout, after Buveur D’Air provoked gasps from the grandstands as he crashed out in the early stages.
However, it was clear some way from home that she was in trouble and as she dropped away racing down the hill, Melon remained in front, with his stablemate Laurina travelling strongly in his slipstream.
But all the while Mark Walsh was biding his time aboard 16-1 shot Espoir D’Allen – who had won each of his three previous starts this season for trainer Gavin Cromwell – and he shot clear from the home turn to seal a hugely-impressive victory by 15 lengths.
Melon boxed on to finish second again, with 80-1 shot Silver Streak in third and Laurina fourth.
Buveur D’Air – bidding to become just the sixth horse in history to win the Champion Hurdle three times – appeared none the worse for his mishap and actually finished upsides the winner crossing the line.
Like Buveur D’Air, Espoir D’Allen runs in the colours of owner JP McManus, and Cromwell said: “I’m just lost for words. It’s brilliant, unbelievable.
“He’s been winning Grade Threes this year, so to win this is fantastic.
“I’m shell-shocked to win anyway, but to win like that – I’m just lost for words.
“When Buveur D’Air fell, we nearly got brought down. It’s unbelievable, I’m completely lost for words.”
Walsh said: “For a five-year-old to do that against what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdle fields for the past few years is unbelievable.
“I was behind Barry (Geraghty, on Buveur D’Air) when he fell and luckily I wasn’t in his way. I just travelled everywhere.
“I was delighted when the rain came this morning because he goes so well in it.
“I was hopeful. I was riding for a place to be honest, but from the third-last Ruby (Walsh, on Laurina) missed it. He just took me to the second-last and was in front plenty soon enough.
“I heard a horse coming and only realised after the last it was a loose horse.
“For a five-year-old to do that is very good.”
Willie Mullins said of Melon and Laurina: “I thought Melon ran a cracker and that’s probably the way we should ride him. Laurina was disappointing, she was beaten so far out.
“I’d imagine both might go over fences next year. I’d imagine both will go to Punchestown.”
He added: “Ruby said Laurina felt a little bit dead. It looks like both horses want to go chasing next year and that they both want a longer trip. I didn’t think Laurina was going that well and she was a little dead in herself.
“We will see what we do for the rest of this season, but we will have a change next season.”
Evan Williams said of Silver Streak: “We are delighted. It has just been such a long journey for this horse when you consider we thought he would win a couple of little handicaps and he has ended up being placed in a Champion Hurdle.
“I can’t really put into words what this means, as it means an awful lot. In a strange way it is easier to place him now we know he is good enough to compete in these types of races.”
A downcast Nicky Henderson said of Buveur D’Air: “We all have to take these things on the chin. When you are jumping like he does he only leaves an inch of margin from being so slick and accurate to being dangerously low.
“He was an inch lower than he should have been, I guess.”
He added: “I’m thrilled for JP winning. He must have felt the same when Buveur D’Air went, but I still had two in the race and he had one.
“It is sad for us, as everyone has done everything they can and he was in such good form.”