Empire Of Dirt ran out the commanding winner of the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at Cheltenham this afternoon, giving trainer Colm Murphy his fourth Festival winner.
The 16/1 shot cruised into contention as the field turned for home but his jockey, Bryan Cooper, had to galvanise his mount as the eventual third King's Palace wasn't going down without a fight.
However, the nine-year-old still had plenty in the tank and he battled well to pass that particular rival as they reached the final fence and a good jump sealed matters as Empire Of Dirt scampered up the hill to record a four length victory, with Tango De Juilley running on to claim second.
Murphy is no stranger to big race success at The Festival, having trained Brave Inca to win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (2004) and the same horse doubled up by landing the Stan James Champion Hurdle two years later.
Big Zeb was another big race winner for Murphy at The Festival when he landed the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2010 and the County Wexford handler was delighted following Empire Of Dirt's success.
"I got a bit animated as they came to the last but it's fantastic," said Murphy. "Empire Of Dirt has hit the ground a few times along the way, but, as a rule, he has been very good and Bryan was very good on him today. He gave him every chance and I am delighted. He settled really well today. He has been hard on himself initially, but he has really got the hang of it and seems to be enjoying his racing now."
1) Empire Of Dirt (Gigginstown House Stud) Colm Murphy IRE 9-10-11 Bryan Cooper 16/1 2) Tango De Juilley (Muhammad Nadeem Khan) Venetia Williams 8-11-04 Jack Kennedy (3) 33/1 3) Kings Palace (Drew, George & Johnson Family) David Pipe 8-11-05 Tom Scudamore 11/1 4) Full Shift (J P McManus) Nicky Henderson 7-10-04 Barry Geraghty 7/1
4th winner at The Festival for trainer Colm Murphy 5th winner at The Festival for jockey Bryan Cooper
BetBright Cup: Great Britain 10, Ireland 9
COOPER NOTCHES FIRST 2016 CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL WINNER
Gigginstown House Stud's retained rider Bryan Cooper gained his first winner of this year's meeting aboard Empire Of Dirt in the Brown Advisory And Merribelle Stable Plate, and fourth in all.
Cooper's mount was always travelling well and despite getting in close at the second last he, was always travelling the best and stayed on nicely to score by four lengths at odds of 16/1.
The Irish jockey said: "It has been a frustrating Festival so far but the horses have been running well and they have just been coming up against some really good horses.
"Vautour and Thistlecrack are good horses but both of mine [Road To Riches and Alpha Des Obeaux] both are very young and nice horses to look forward to in the future.
"I was very lucky that I was not hampered early on. I was meant to be handy but missed the break and I think I could hear Michael and Eddie O'Leary shouting in the crowd but I took a chance, our luck changed and I knew I was on a good horse.
"If you look back through his form, he is a classy horse with very good form and better ground helped him as well. He travelled really well and Colm Murphy always kept the faith and said he was a lovely horse. He felt there was big day in him so it was good we got a bit of luck."
"He was not doing much in front but when the second horse [Tango De Juilley] came upsides him, he picked up again."
GIGGINSTOWN GAIN FIRST WINNER OF 2016 CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL
After a number of near-misses so far this week and plenty of placed horses, Ryanair and Gigginstown House Stud supremo Michael O'Leary, was delighted to gain his first winner of this year's Festival courtesy of Empire Of Dirt. The nine-year-old, ridden by Bryan Cooper and trained by Colm Murphy was a comfortable four length winner.
O'Leary was pleased that Gigginstown and Cooper had got on the board. He remarked: "It is great for Bryan, it is nice for jockeys to get a winner on the board and hopefully both he and (Davy Russell) will go into the Gold Cup riding with confidence.
"It is nice to have a winner. We have a lot to look forward to tomorrow. We have a few in the Albert Bartlett as well. It is just Cheltenham.
"I've sponsored two races today with two great winners. Unfortunately, I finished second in both races against two machines but that is Cheltenham. You usually run against machines.
"It is great to be here at Cheltenham and I am fortunate to have runners here and if you can nick a win or two, it is better. It is always nice to be in the winner's enclosure so you have to enjoy it and treasure these moments because they do not happen often."
O'Leary also expanded on Bryan Cooper's decision to ride Don Cossack in tomorrow's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, which gives Davy Russell the ride on Don Poli. O'Leary said: "I think Bryan is on the right horse. If the ground is good, it will suit Don Cossack. Hopefully, with Smad Place there will be plenty of pace but that is a stellar Gold Cup. It is a stellar field and one of the best we have seen in many years.
"You could give a chance to five or six of them in the race. Don Cossack, Don Poli, Djakadam and Cue Card are all running out of their skin and whoever wins it tomorrow will be champion.
"I very much hope Bryan has made the right choice but if he hasn't, I hope Davy Russell has made the right choice."
TANGO SQUASHES FEARS AFTER LONG BREAK
Tango De Juilley made his season's debut in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, and ran a blinder to take second, despite the long absence.
The Venetia Williams-trained nine-year-old is owned by a partnership headed by Muhammad Nadeem Khan, who went to school in Cheltenham, discovered racing while there, and promised to get involved if ever he made a success of business. He gave his horse little chance of being involved, and was thrilled when 33/1 shot Tango De Juilley chased home winner Empire Of Dirt. The distance between the pair was four lengths, and there was one and a quarter lengths back to the David Pipe-trained Kings Palace, who was still in contention at the final fence, but weakened on the run to the line.
Williams said: "The owners are delighted - absolutely thrilled. They don't live in the UK, and Cheltenham is the focus for them all year. The horse got an injury when out at grass on his summer holidays, and it has taken a while to get him back. Ideally, he would have liked it softer than this."
Pipe, who was also pleased by the run of top-weight Ballynagour, who finished seventh, said of Kings Palace: "Turning in I thought 'Oh no, this could be a story of him not seeing the hill out', but he ran a cracking race and it's nice to get him back. His last two runs haven't been great, but better ground helped and he had a wind operation before his last start at Chepstow and we felt he would improve for the run.
"Ballynagour ran a cracker to finish where he did - he was nearly brought down twice."
The Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable (previously Byrne Group) Plate is run on the Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival over a distance of 2m 4 1/2f.
It is a handicap steeplechase and has Grade 3 status. David Pipes's Salut Flo became the first winning favourite since 1999 in landing the 2012 renewal.
Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Stats
Jockeys: 3 of the last 7 race winners were ridden by claiming jockeys
Rating: 11 of the last 11 winning horses were rated 140 or less ( 8 of last 10 between 135-145)
Age: No strong trend
Prep: 8 out of 11 ran between 12 and 42 days beforehand
Form: 7 out of 11 finished in first 4 on their previous run
Trainer: David Pipe has saddled 3 of the last 7 winners also respect Venetia Williams & Nicky Henderson horses
Trainer: No Irish trained winner in last decade (and just one since 1951)
Weight: 9 out of 11 carried 10-11 or less
Fate of the Favourite: 4 F 0 F 2 2 3 1 8 2 3
Winners Market Position: 0 6 5 0 0 0 1 0 6 0
Byrne Group Plate Winners 2006-2015
Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Trivia
The first running, which resulted in a dead-heat between Slender (7/1) and Canford (100/8), took place at Cheltenham in April, because the last two days of the 1951 Festival were abandoned due to a waterlogged course.
The Byrne Group Plate has a safety limit of 24 and a maximum field lined up in 2006 and 2010. Just seven runners went to post in 1974 and 1977.
Mont Tremblant carried 12st 7lb to victory in 1955, while Uncle Bing shouldered 12st 5lb to glory in 1977. At the other end of the scale, Mr Peapock (1983), New Halen (1990) and Old Bridge (1996) all struck off 9st 7lb, having been ridden by 7lb claiming conditional jockeys.
There have been two dual winners in The Tsarevich (1985 and 1986) and Elfast (1992 and 1994)
Three trainers have won the Byrne Group Plate four times. Bobby Renton, grandfather of Ian Renton, South West Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, struck with Tudor Line (1954), Caesar's Helm (1958), Siracusa (1959) and Merry Court (1968), while Martin Pipe sent out Terao (1997), Majadou (1999), Dark Stranger (2000) and Blowing Wind (2002). Nicky Henderson, the most successful current trainer, enoyed his fourth winner, Non So, in 2006 to add to the victories of The Tsarevich (1985 and 1986) and Liberthine (2005).
Fred Winter partnered three winners - Slender (1951, dead-heat), Sy Oui (1953), Caesar's Helm (1958). Two current jockeys have enjoyed two winners - Timmy Murphy on Terao (1997) and Tikram (2004) plus Richard Johnson on Dark Stranger (2000) and Young Spartacus (2003).
The Irish have a poor record in the race, with only one winner - Doubleuagain in 1982, trained by Andy Geraghty.
Majadou is the shortest-priced winner, rewarding favourite backers at odds of 7/4 in 1999. Two horses have struck at odds of 66/1 - New Halen (1990) and 11-year-old Mister McGoldrick in 2008.
The fastest time for the winning horse is 4m 49.60s by Dark Stranger in 2000, beating the 4m 58.5s of New Halen in 1990.