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Bless The Wings and Robinsfirth star on Day One of The International



The International got underway at Cheltenham on Friday, December 15, with a seven-race programme on the New Course.

The official going description was:

Chase & Hurdle Courses: Soft, Good to Soft in places
Cross Country Course: Good to Soft, Soft in places

A crowd of 12,140 (up from 12,026 in 2016) was treated to some fabulous action from both exciting young performers and old favourites, headlined by the victories of Bless The Wings in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase and Robinsfirth in the Unicoin Group Handicap Chase.

The International continues tomorrow, Saturday, December 16, when the highlights are the £120,000 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup Handicap Chase (1.55pm) and the £130,000 Unibet International Hurdle (3.05pm).

A race-by-race account of all the Friday action can be found below. Replays of all races can be viewed by visiting http://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/video/

12.10pm £12,000 British Stallion Studs EBF National Hunt Novices' Hurdle 2m 179y

Western Ryder (Warren Greatrex/Richard Johnson, 5/2) was a very decent performer in bumpers last season and continued his progress over hurdles when landing the opening British Stallion Studs EBF National Hunt Novices' Hurdle.

The five-year-old travelled well throughout and took the lead approaching the final flight. He stayed on well up the run in for a comfortable two-length success over 2/1 favourite Lalor (Richard Woollacott/Davy Russell). This was a second victory over hurdles for Western Ryder, following his win at Chepstow on November 22.

Warren Greatrex said: "It wasn't a great start to Western Ryder's hurdling career at Stratford but he is getting better and better. He was very slick there - he got a bit close to the last - but it wouldn't have suited him at all because he needs a fast-run race.

"He was keen for quite a long way but he stays very well and has a good turn of foot. I thought that we were in trouble for a second but, the further he goes, the better.

"I will speak to Richard (Johnson) and make a plan - Western Ryder stays very well but he is fast. We will have to step him up somewhere after Christmas and put him in something a bit better."



Western Ryder takes the British Stallion Studs EBF National Hunt Novices' Hurdle

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


12.45pm £25,000 Horse Comes First Novices' Chase 3m 1f 56y

Sizing Tennessee (Colin Tizzard/Bryan Cooper, 2/1 Fav) finally got off the mark over fences when taking the Horse Comes First Novices' Chase. The nine-year-old was making his eighth appearance over fences and after taking the lead four out, stayed on well for a comfortable six-length victory over Duel At Dawn (Alex Hales/Kielan Woods, 9/4).

Colin Tizzard said: "We gave Sizing Tennessee three or four jumping sessions last week because he had lost his nerve a bit after falling. He was a bit guessy today and he made jumping hard work but, in the end, he is a big, strong galloper.

"He is a nine-year-old, his form was in the book and there was absolutely no reason to hold him up. He is not the easiest of rides - he sticks his head out and leads on you the whole time.

"He hadn't run over fences before he came to us as an eight-year-old last year, so that tells you that they weren't in a hurry to put him over fences in Ireland. He has jumped round here and looked like a strong stayer, so it's lovely for the horse, the owner and for Bryan.

"When we ran him over three miles here at the first meeting, he looked right at home. He outstayed a stayer today and he could go for something like the National Hunt Chase. He needs a bit more practice but we will run him every three weeks from now on!"



Sizing Tennessee on his way to victory in the Horse Comes First Novices' Chase

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


1.20pm £12,000 Catesby Handicap Hurdle 2m 179y

Smaoineamh Alainn (Robert Walford/James Best, 11st 4lb, 7/1) came with a superbly-timed run to land the Catesby Handicap Hurdle.

The five-year-old mare jumped the final flight in third place before staying on well to take the lead in the final furlong and going on to score by two lengths from Remiluc (Chris Gordon/Paul O'Brien (5), 11st 7lb, 8/1) with 9/2 favourite Champagne City (Tom George/Noel Fehily, 11st) another head back in third.

Winning trainer Robert Walford said: "Smaoineamh Alainn has always shown us loads at home and we thought that we would have a go here and see what happens. She is a beautiful filly and James has given her a great ride, as cool as you like.

"She is learning to settle and everyone at home have done all the work - I just turn up here and take all the credit.

"The main thing for her is getting some Black type. Her most important race of the year is a Listed mares' hurdle at Doncaster in February - she was bought as a broodmare and it would be great to get some Black type there. She has loads of pace and I doubt whether she would get further."



Smaoineamh Alainn (red cap) takes the last on third place before going on to win the Catesby Handicap Hurdle

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


1.55pm £12,000 CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase 2m 4f 166y

Ms Parfois (Anthony Honeyball/Noel Fehily, 11st 10lb, 9/2 Jt Fav) got back to winning ways when landing the CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase.

The six-year-old tracked the leaders before being delivered by Noel Fehily to take the lead approaching the last. She stayed on well to win by a length from Theatre Territory (Warren Greatrex/Mr Sam Waley-Cohen, 11st 9lb, 6/1). The pair finished clear, with another 21 lengths back to the third, Song Saa (Tom George/Mr Noel George (7), 11st 6lb, 6/1).

Anthony Honeyball said: "On her first run at Uttoxeter, Ms Parfois was half asleep with the hood on and it was quicker ground - it was a good exercise and she jumped well, so we weren't too disappointed.

"I was just hoping that it would be soft for her today. When the race unravelled at the top of the back, she looked to be lobbing along in third gear. I always felt that Noel was coaxing her along and she got a lovely lead to the last.

"We bought her from the Hassett team in Ireland. She is a point-to-point winner and a big, strong mare. I suppose we will keep looking at any of the Listed mares' events - we have Black type from her hurdling campaign but we will be looking at a three and a half-mile handicap chaser next season. We will make the most of her novice tag this season."

Noel Fehily added: "Ms Parfois ran over three miles last time and I think you need a stayer today. The ground is riding nice - there is a lovely cover of grass - and it's soft, so they are finishing tired.

"This was only her second run over fences and she is a young mare. She has a good attitude and stays well, so I would say that there is plenty more to come."



Ms Parfois on her way to winning the CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


2.30pm £45,000 Unicoin Group Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m 2f

Trainer Colin Tizzard brought up an 8.25/1 double on the day when 7/4 chance Robinsfirth (Robbie Power, 11st 6lb) was successful in the richest race on the card, the £45,000 Unicoin Group Handicap Chase.

The eight-year-old tracked the leader Southfield Theatre (Paul Nicholls/Harry Cobden, 11st 12lb, 11/2) before taking the lead two fences from home. He stayed on resolutely to see off the challenge of Shanroe Santos (Lucy Wadham/Leighton Aspell, 10st 5lb, 8/1) by two lengths with Southfield Theatre another nine lengths back in third.

Colin Tizzard said: "It's no secret that I wanted to go for the Welsh National with Robinsfirth but the owners (Christine Knowles & Wendy Carter) weren't going to let me go for that race. We found the right race today - it's beautiful prize money.

"For a big horse, he was in deep and long but was fine. He has just about reached his potential. He was nearly brought down at Haydock and that was testing ground. This ground wasn't as bad - it's winter ground but we can't complain.

"I have mentioned the Grand National but the owners have said no. I have a few more weeks to work on that one!"

Robbie Power commented: "Robinsfirth jumped really well and he is still a big baby with not a lot of miles on the clock. All credit to his owners (Christine Knowles and Wendy Carter) - they are two lovely ladies and have been very, very patient with him.

"He is a gorgeous, big horse and just got bogged down a bit at Haydock last time. He was much better on the better ground today."



Robinsfirth takes the Unicoin Group Handicap Chase

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


3.05pm £35,000 Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 3m 6f 37y

The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase went to Ireland for 10thtime in 15 runnings when 12/1 chance Bless The Wings (Gordon Elliott IRE/Davy Russell, 11st 2lb) led home an Irish-trained 1-2-3.

The 12-year-old Bless The Wings went into the lead four fences from home and never looked like getting caught. Last year's winner Cantlow (Enda Bolger IRE/Donal McInerney (5), 10st 10lb, 7/1) took second, two and a half lengths behind, with the 2015 winner Josies Orders (Enda Bolger IRE/Mark Walsh, 11st 4lb, 11/4 Fav) another four lengths adrift in third.

Gordon Elliott said: "Bless The Wings has been placed at two Cheltenham Festivals for us and in two Irish Nationals. He is a great horse but was a bit disappointing on his last two runs and I was actually thinking about retiring him. It just goes to show what those jumps can do to a horse.

"I am delighted for his owners, Steve O'Connor and Adrian Butler, and Davy gave the horse a great ride. Camilla looks after him every day, so it is great for her as well.

"The ground was very, very soft on his first two runs and sometimes these horses can get a bit cute but he deserved that."

Davy Russell said: "We had a change of plan today. Usually, we try and drop Bless The Wings on the line but I wanted to do something different on him. I wanted to get to the front early because it is different - he has a bit of age in him and has never done it before. It was something new for him and he loved it.

"He has been an absolute star and you can't say enough about the trainer. Gordon never lost faith and always said that there would be a big day in him. That's the beauty of Gordon - he will give them every chance.

"It's always a dream to ride winners here. It has been a dream since I was a four-year-old and my dad used to come over here religiously every year. This place is a special place."




Bless The Wings and Davy Russell on their way to winning the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images


3.40pm £22,000 Citipost Handicap Hurdle 2m 7f 213y

There was a local success in the concluding Citipost Handicap Hurdle when Arthur's Gift (Nigel Twiston-Davies/Tom Humphries, 10st 4lb, 6/1) came out on top.

Sykes (Nicky Martin/Matt Griffiths, 11st 2lb, 33/1) looked to have the race sewn up as he went clear two out but the 7lb claimer Tom Humphries, riding his first winner at Cheltenham, galvanised his mount for a strong challenge on the run-in and took the lead in the closing stages, scoring by a length and three-quarters. Jester Jet (Tom Lacey/Robert Dunne, 10st 10lb, 7/1) was another neck back in third.

Tom Humphries said: "I thought that the trip would bring out the best in Arthur's Gift. Last time I rode him, it took a while to get him going and I thought that, if I get after him now, I know that he would pick up in the end.

"I didn't really want to go all out as soon as I could. It's a long way from the back of the last and I have watched many races here where it has changed.

"I am just very lucky to ride for a great boss. There is a great team back at home and everyone is working really hard. Hopefully, we can maintain it through the season - we have Boxing Day coming up, which could hopefully be a big day."




Arthur's Gift overtakes Sykes on his way to winning the Citipost Handicap Hurdle

Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images

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