Pied Piper (5-6 Favourite) exacted some revenge for last season’s defeat at Aintree by getting the better of his old adversary Knight Salute with a gutsy victory in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle at Cheltenham today – keeping alive his Unibet Champion Hurdle hopes in the process.
Pied Piper – a horse who The Queen sold for £225,000 last year – has just won* one of the most prestigious jump races.
I wonder if Her Majesty regrets selling him now?
*There were actually two winners! A dead heat – the judge couldn’t split the two!
— Charlie Proctor (@MonarchyUK) April 7, 2022
The son of New Approach was one of the stars of the juvenile circuit last season and he arrived here with some history with Knight Salute, having dramatically been demoted in the stewards’ room after dead heating with Milton Harris’ charge in the Grade One Anniversary 4YO Hurdle at last season’s Randox Grand National Festival.
Pied Piper certainly had to work to settle matters, jumping the final flight alongside rivals Knight Salute and Bella Scintilla, but he found plenty up the hill for a gutsy two and three quarter length success – which saw him handed quotes of 14-1 (Betfair, Paddy Power) for the 2023 Champion Hurdle.
And while pleased with the performance, Elliott stressed that there was a long time between now and the two mile showpiece next March. He said: “That was a good performance, I thought it was a nice race to start him off and I thought Jack gave him a lovely ride so it worked out well. He’s a lot stronger than last year and he put his head down when he galloped to the line so I’m very happy, he’s a nice horse.
“We’re going to dream for another while but it’s a hot division and he’s going to have to keep on improving. We’ll go to Down Royal in a couple weeks for the WKD Hurdle and then onto Christmas all being well. He’s going to have to improve but if you’re not in, you can’t win.
“If you look at the way he jumps his hurdles he’s going to be a chaser down the road, so he’s one to look forward to. He’s getting stronger every day and I think there’s a big Flat handicap in him as well.
“As an individual he is way stronger than he was in March and April, if you look at him even walking around the ring he has the look of a chaser now. With those juveniles you want a bit of scope to keep improving, so he’s doing okay. If he keeps going the way he’s going we’ll be happy.”
Winning jockey Jack Kennedy added: “He is so quick with his jumping and I kept landing closer than I wanted to be the whole way round. I was nearly in front jumping the second last and I really didn’t want to be.
“Toi be fair to him, he was long at the last when I asked him and picked up well off the back of it.
“He’s a different horse physically than he was last year as he’s really filled out and got taller as well. He’s maturing the whole time and hopefully can keep going the right way.”
Another Irish raider to strike on the card was the Willie Mullins-trained Dads Lad (7-2), who picked up a fourth win from his last five outings when staying on well to win the 888Sport Handicap Chase over two miles.
The son of Eliot is a versatile type, picking up wins on the Flat as well as over both hurdles and fences during his career. Patrick Mullins was representing his father Willie while wearing a protective boot over his right leg and he revealed that he felt that the Grand Annual could prove to be an ideal target for him at the Festival.
He said: “I thought it was a ‘Ruby ride’ from Brian (Hayes), he rode him with loads of confidence and got everything right. It’s brilliant for the boys who own him and we might have to look at the Grand Annual for him maybe.
“I left the instructions to Brian, he knows the horse so I said ride him as you find him and he’s a very good rider. That’s his first winner at Cheltenham but it won’t be his last, he’s been a very big part of our team for the last couple of years and I just thought that the ride won it to be honest.
“Today was kind of the plan and he’s not really a middle of winter horse, so maybe we’ll give him a break. I think he’s very well in over hurdles and there’s a big hurdles in him somewhere.
“I strained my ankle in the Pardubice but I’m fine, I’m just being dramatic! It’s great for the sympathy votes though!”
That victory proved to be a first at Cheltenham for the winning jockey Brian Hayes, who said: “That was brilliant. Fair play to Willie and Patrick Mullins as they had him spot on for today after a summer of running in Ireland.
“I was always trying to conserve and the ground is actually patchy enough towards the inside – I was trying to stay off the cut up ground from yesterday and Willie and Patrick said to stay wide.
“He kept bringing me into the race with his jumping and it was only his fourth run over fences. Two miles around here is quick and all go but in fairness to him he is very intelligent and uses his brain.”
Meanwhile, Liam Culliman, representing the owners Whitegrass Racing Syndicate, added: “It’s our second ever runner at Cheltenham, the last one ran during the pandemic so this is our first time being here as owners. We bought the horse exactly a year ago and that was his sixth win, so it’s been top-class.
“There’s 20 of us and most of us are in the Midlands of Ireland and it’s a dream come true to have a winner here. It doesn’t matter whether it’s March or October, this is a dream for us.”