Although the Grand National at Aintree is the world's most famous steeplechase, the most prestigious National Hunt race meeting is the Cheltenham Festival, with eleven Grade 1 jump races carded over 4 days. An average of 50,000 fans come daily to watch the best jump races of the year. Since the Festival often coincides with St. Patrick's Day, half the crowd is from Ireland, in to cheer on their runners in a friendly head-to-head competition with the English-based horses. It is National Hunt's equivalent of the Breeders' Cup or Royal Ascot, while the Grand National is more like the Kentucky Derby.
Kicking off the Festival on Tuesday March 16 was the £100,000 Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle (G1). A field of 15 horses aged 4 and up contested this 2 1/16 mile trip over 8 hurdles. 10-1 shot Al Ferof sat near the back of the field most of the way around under jockey Ruby Walsh, well behind the pace set by 16-1 Hidden Universe and 20-1 Dunraven Storm, then moved up towards the leaders approaching the 3rd last jump and taking over the lead before the 2nd last, holding off 5-1 Spirit Son by 2 lengths for the win in 3:52.20 over the good turf. It was another 3 1/4 lengths back to 11-1 Sprinter Sacre third, while 7-4 favorite Cue Card was fourth.
Winning owner John Hales said, "I thought we were running for fourth, then third and then it all happened - all thanks to Ruby. His judging of pace is just amazing." Trainer Paul Nicholls added, "It's the first time I've had Al Ferof right, he's just taken some time to come to himself. Last year he gave Cue Card weight and if Cue Card hadn't been there he'd have been an easy winner and everybody would be raving about him."