Once-a-year gambler strikes it lucky on a bizarre opening day at Cheltenham

The Cheltenham festival is one of those horse racing events where people who ordinarily have no interest in gambling like to place a small wager, just for fun. This was the case with one lucky winner, whose £2 stake (AU$3.75) netted him a win of £182,567 (about AU$343,000).

This year’s festival has seen record wagers from across the globe. Plenty of Australian racing fans have been able to get in on the action thanks to online sites like Unibet providing betting options and tips. But while many have enjoyed some useful wins, the successful accumulator from the UK fan, who has asked not to be named, will surely be one of the biggest stories of a dramatic festival.

How did he do it?

The lucky punter, who confesses to having only a passing knowledge of horse racing, participated in the Tote Placepot that was run at the course. Here, you have to pick a placed horse in each race of the day. Ordinarily, success will result in a payout at odds of about 100/1. But on Tuesday, things were a little out of the ordinary.

For one thing, only one favourite came in first in the six races, and for another, nothing went according to form in the big race of the day, with none of the top three horses placing.

The racegoer told the BBC what happened when he approached the bookmaker after the last race: “Her face just dropped. I asked her how much and she very discreetly showed us. We still didn’t really believe it.”

Other Placepot winners included two punters who each collected £36,500 (AU$68,460) from a stake of just 40p (AU$0.75).

Drama and tragedy on opening day

Tuesday was one of the most dramatic opening days in Cheltenham history. In the opening races, Willie Mullins continued where he left off last year, with Klassical Dream taking the Supreme Novice Hurdle and Duc Des Genievres winning the Arkle Chase. In the third race, Mullins’ arch rival Nicky Henderson got off the mark, his 10/1 shot Beware the Bear coming in a surprise winner in the Handicap Chase.

But it was in the showcase event, the Champion Hurdle, that things really started to take a turn for the strange. Red hot favourite Buveur D’Air fell at the third and Apple’s Jade, tipped to be the main challenger, failed to make an impression. This left the path clear for Gavin Cromwell to claim his first ever Cheltenham winner with 16/1 outsider Espoir D’Allen. Melon, at 20/1, and 80/1 shot Silver Streak were second and third.  
The madness continued into the afternoon. Benie Des Dieux, the odds-on favourite in the Mares Hurdle, fell at the last while well ahead, allowing Dan Skelton’s Roksana to claim victory. Shock turned to horror in the final race, with the Mullins-trained favourite Ballyward falling at the 17th fence along with eight other horses and having to be euthanised at the scene. The tragedy has cast doubt on the future of the National Hunt Chase.