Roksana takes full advantage of dramatic Benie Des Dieux exit

Final-flight fall conjures memories of Annie Power in same race

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Roksana emerged victorious in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham after red-hot favourite Benie Des Dieux crashed out at the final flight.

Trainer Willie Mullins had claimed this prize nine times in the 11 previous years it had been run – with the remarkable six-time winner Quevega joined on the roll of honour by Glens Melody, Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.

Having already won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Klassical Dream and the Arkle Trophy with Duc Des Genievres, Mullins looked to have outstanding claims of completing an opening-day treble, with Benie Des Dieux the 10-11 favourite to successfully defend her crown.

Everything went according to script for much of the two-and-a-half-mile journey, with Benie Des Dieux always travelling strongly while her stablemate Stormy Ireland cut out the running.

Ruby Walsh eased Benie Des Dieux to the front before the home turn, and she was well in command when she crashed through the final hurdle and came to grief – an almost carbon copy of the fall suffered by Annie Power for the same connections in this race four years ago.

Her exit saw the Dan Skelton-trained and Harry Skelton-ridden Roksana left in front – and she managed to hold the rallying Stormy Ireland at bay by two and a quarter lengths.

Another Mullins runner, Good Thyne Tara, was third.

Winning trainer Skelton said: “It is magic – we were set for second, and that happens.

“I think our horse would have got a lot of plaudits for finishing second. It is a tough race, and she was bang there at the last.”

Roksana was winning after a far from straightforward campaign.

“We started in the autumn with her and she just pulled a muscle,” added Skelton.

“The plan was to try and have her ready for the Long Walk – but when we weren’t going to be able to get there in tip-top form I said to the owner ‘rip up the plan and have one run before the mares’ race’ – because that is what we were aiming for all season.

“Native River won the Gold Cup off one run last year, so it it was probably a blessing in disguise in a way.”

Roksana’s success is Skelton’s first at Grade One level.

He added: “Of course, winning your first Grade One here is very special.

“Last night it felt like Christmas Eve – the horses were in great form.

“I’ve won a couple of (Festival) races on the Friday, and you go into the fourth day and you get into the car park and you think ‘I’ve only got a few chances left here’.

“To do it on a Tuesday, you can enjoy three days now.”

Mullins, of course, had decidedly more mixed feelings.

He said: “She ran a cracker.

“She just slipped after the last unfortunately. She got out her landing gear, but she wasn’t able to organise herself quickly after the last.

“We get lots of fallers during the year all the time – it is just part of jump racing unfortunately.

“It is disappointing (after being) that far in front in a Grade One race.

“We’ve had great luck already, so we will take what comes.”

Benie Des Dieux’s owner Rich Ricci was struggling to come to terms with a setback so evidently reminiscent of that which befell Annie Power in 2015 – but was heartened that his mare emerged unscathed.

He said: “That’s the good news that she is up and well.

“I just don’t know what to say – it has been a very difficult couple weeks. The mare is all right, and that’s the most important thing.

“She was going very well, but she is a very good mare. We will mind her and bring her back to win again. It’s just difficult – this game is tough.

“I’m sorry to the people that punted her. I know I get stick for that – but it doesn’t matter, because she is back up and fine. “

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