Espoir D’Allen caused a seismic shock in the Unibet Champion Hurdle as none of the first three in the betting made the frame in the opening day highlight of the Cheltenham Festival.
While Gavin Cromwell’s five-year-old brought with him a progressive profile having only lost once in his 10 races under rules to date, he was expected to find things much tougher up against dual winner Buveur D’Air, and crack Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
Those three dominated the market, but Buveur D’Air – bidding to become just the sixth horse to win two-mile blue riband three times – fell at the halfway stage and not long after that Apple’s Jade was soon giving out distress signals.
Ruby Walsh still appeared to be going well on Laurina behind last year’s runner-up Melon, but at the third-last Espoir D’Allen loomed up as a huge threat for Mark Walsh.
Cromwell, a former farrier who won the Welsh National with Raz De Maree last season, now has 50 horses and owner JP McManus obviously saw something early in him to support his venture.
And although McManus was lamenting the fall of his champion, he had a thoroughly able 16-1 second-string and he powered clear for a 15-length success from Melon, who was second again, with 80-1 chance Silver Streak in third.
Espoir D’Allen became just the second five-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle since 1985 after Katchit in 2008.
Cromwell found it hard to put his feelings into words, saying: “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.”
He went on: “I have three horses for JP McManus and about 50 in total, but not many graded horses.
“Charlie Swan (who won three Champion Hurdles on Istabraq for McManus) found the horse in France and he came to me after winning a juvenile bumper over there.
“I had a call from JP’s team to say I had a horse coming to me in a couple of weeks, and it was this one. JP has been very good to me and sent me Jer’s Girl, who won a couple of Grade One races – it’s great to be able to repay him.
“I started training a few point-to-pointers and enjoyed it, and it went from there. We’ll still do a little bit of farriery because it’s the only way to make it pay. You need (to train) 145 horses otherwise.
“The game is full of talented trainers and better trainers than me – right the way through from the point-to-point ranks to the top of the game there are some brilliant trainers in Ireland.”
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 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.”
McManus said: “It’s great to win another Champion Hurdle. I am thrilled for Gavin and Mark. It is a big moment for them.
“It was disappointing to see Buveur D’Air fall, but that was his own making. It is of course still very nice to win the race with Espoir D’Allen.
“Any time you win the Champion Hurdle you have to enjoy it.”
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.
“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.”
Evan Williams said after the huge run of Silver Streak: “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.”
But 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.”