Tactics came to the fore and at the end Footpad and Ruby Walsh made a patient approach pay dividends with a wide margin win in the Grade One Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham.
A woefully-small field for what should be one of the first day highlights, but the quality could not be denied.
From the off, Petite Mouchoir and Saint Calvados went hammer and tongs and were soon ten lengths clear of the patiently-ridden Footpad, with a gap back to Brain Power and a wider one to Robinshill, who was soon tailed off.
Racing down the back, the front two had got away from Footpad who made a serious blunder, but all the time the question was whether the front two had gone off too fast.
By the top of the hill, Petite Mouchoir had seen off Saint Calvados and as that rival began to back pedal, Footpad began to get noticeably nearer.
Racing down the hill, the picture changed perceptibly as Footpad ranged alongside his old rival, absolutely tanking.
Walsh pressed on and Footpad scampered around the home turn and over the second last fence with the race at his mercy.
In behind, Petite Mouchoir had no answer and Brain Power began to close on him.
A foot perfect leap at the last sealed a deserved victory for one of the signature horses of this winter, with Footpad storming further away for a one-sided win.
Miles back, Brain Power got up for second, with Petite Mouchoir a weary third, but a parish clear of Saint Calvados.
Footpad was giving the Mullins-Walsh duo a first victory at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Did he benefit from the front two cutting each other’s throats? Most definitely, but it is inconceivable to see how any of his four rivals could have beaten Footpad on this day.
It was a 55th Festival winner for Footpad’s trainer Willie Mullins, who was scoring his third Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase in four years.
Mullins said: “Going past the stands the first time the horse was off the bridle and when he made that bad mistake I thought, ‘Oooh, that’s it, over’, and he was off the bridle the whole way down the back, but Ruby sat and sat and waited for the two in front [Petit Mouchoir and Calvados] to come back. He had a feeling the ones in front were going too fast and it turned out to be right.”
Asked whether he had ever had a horse who had improved so much when swapping hurdles for fences, Mullins replied: “I doubt it. We had this fella marked down as a JLT [Novices’ Chase, over two and a half miles], and we were looking around trying to buy novice chasers to run over two miles. When we ran this fella in his first two races we said ‘Eh, we have the best one in our yard!’ His jumping has just gone up another gear, and he can stay, so we might just have a Gold Cup horse on our hands.”
Simon Munir, who owns Footpad along with Isaac Souede, said: “It was a very competitive renewal of the Arkle. Only five runners but three or four of them had a great chance. It is a tremendous relief as I hate odds-on favourites.
“Ruby is the master – he let the horse recover [from the mistake] and then worked him in to the race. There is nothing better than getting a winner on the first day of The Festival. The pressure is off now.”
Asked about his other leading hopes for the week, Munir said: “Fix Le Kap tomorrow. We are quite hopeful about him, and then Terrefort on Thursday.”
Brain shows Power to take second
Footpad proved he is the real deal when running out a 14-length winner of the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Running on to take second from the weakening early pace-setter Petit Mouchoir was Brain Power, who passed the post three-quarters of a length ahead of that rival.
Nico De Boinville, who rode the Nicky Henderson-trained Brain Power in the colours of owner Michael Buckley, said: “I was very happy with that. They [Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados] have gone very hard up front, and I was very happy to hunt away and pick up the pieces, but I couldn’t go with the winner.”
Brain Power made a little piece of racing history when becoming the first horse to run at The Festival following a wind operation and the requirement that trainers make public that information. Buckley said it was “a minor procedure, just a little cauterisation, and it made very little difference”.
Of his horse’s performance, Buckley said: “I don’t think that is his favourite ground, and he would have run potentially a better race on good to soft, but who knows? It would have been closer anyway.
“I think he’s a two-miler here at Cheltenham, but on an easier track like Aintree he might be suited by two and a half miles. I guess the plan is Aintree next – it’s four and a half weeks away so there is time.”
Petit Mouchoir, was beaten into third by a staying on second-placed Brain Power and the imperious 14-length winner, Footpad.
The grey Al Namix seven-year-old, trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Davy Russell, pleased connections on what was only his third run over fences.
De Bromhead commented: “Davy (Russell) thought he had possibly gone a bit quick. We left ourselves to be shot at but the way he was going and jumping you couldn’t blame him.
“It looked like he just got a bit tired at the end. This was only his third run over fences so it was OK.”
Russell added: “He ran well. We tried to beat the favourite but weren’t good enough.”
Giggingstown House Stud owner Michael O’Leary reflected: “It was very good race and the best horse won.
“Our’s (Petit Mouchoir) plus Saint Calvados (fourth) possibly cut there own throats, they were both keen early on but I don’t think it made any difference to the result as Footpad is clearly a very good chaser. His form is in the book all season.”