The top nine in the current jump trainers’ table all sent runners to post on day one of the sun-blessed extravaganza and Paul Nicholls, Peter Bowen and Tim Vaughan all notched winners.
All in all the opening day of the festival, with a Best of British theme, was a big success as a large crowd lapped up the midsummer-like temperatures and some good-quality racing.
Before racing there was a fascinating question-and-answer session with one of jump-racing’s top trainer-owner pairings of Nicholls and Andy Stewart in which an audience in Fontwell House heard about their plans for the season for stable stars Big Buck’s, Denman and Kauto Star, plus many other up-and-coming horses.
The first race of the festival, the Chancellor of the Formchecker Juvenile Maiden Hurdle, looked for all the world to be going the way of Memorabilia, the John Ferguson-trained contender ridden by Paul Moloney.
He led all the way - but after the final hurdle, A Little Bit Dusty, ridden by Tom O’Connor for Dorset trainer Bill Turner found an extra gear and overtook the leader with a bit to spare.
Mark Quinlan on another Turner runner, Dixie Land Band, was third. Turner’s first-ever winner, many years ago, was at Fontwell.
Winning jockey O’Connor was later banned for two days for over-use of the whip.
Fontwell looked an absolute picture as a decent-sized crowd packed in to bask in temperatures which, given that Fontwell doesn’t race from June to August, must have been as high as any ever experienced on one of their racedays.
The Join 888sport, Get £50 Free Bets Novices’ Steeple Chase was three-horse race which became a two-horse affair when Stage Acclaim fell halfway round.
The 4/9 favourite Red Harbour, ridden by Daryl Jacob for trainer Nicholls, went on to win - but not without a struggle against a brave effort from 7/1 shot Khorun, who led until the home straight.
Afterwards Nicholls had praise for the Fontwell racing surface, which had been beautifully prepared despite a recent lack of rain.
Nicholls said: “Daryl said the ground was absolutely fantastic.”
Next was the Shoreham Port Corporate Raceday Handicap Hurdle, which was taken impressively by Rachael Green on the 13/8 favourite Fountains Flypast, trained by Anthony Honeyball, who held off the challenge of Mr Harmoosh, ridden by Sussex’s Leighton Aspell. Green also had words of praise for the ground.
The feature race - the £18,000 Fuller’s London Pride Handicap Steeple Chase - was next and there was a surprise result, and another late charge by the eventual winner, as Rio Gael and Tom O’Brien came through to win after going off at 11/1 for another of the leading trainers, Bowen.
The third long-time leader to lose in the afternoon’s first four races was 14/1 shot King Edmund, with Tom Cannon on board.
Dave Crosse on Snake Charmer, trained by Martin Keighley, ran a strong final circuit to take the SIS Handicap Hurdle from Michael Byrne on Scotsbrook Cloud. Market leader Rey Nacarado was third.
Vaughan enjoyed his first victory of the festival when Michael Byrne guided home Definite Dawn at 15/2 in the Dr John Denner Memorial Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Steeple Chase, winning from Cannon on Ballagio.
The last, the Southern Water/Saw Doctors Here Tomorrow Maiden Hurdle, went to Viviani, ridden by Aspell for Pulborough trainer Amanda Perrett, who moved past Cock of the Rock and Keith Goldsworthy.
The field was reduced by two when Inner Steel and Miss Kalifa fell with a circuit to go.
Fontwell Park general manager was positive about the festival’s first day, since it was the largest weekday afternoon crowd the course had ever seen. “I don’t like to complain about the sun but if anything it’s too hot and some people might have gone to the beach instead of coming here. But overall we’re delighted.”
Saturday’s race card looks just as good and, as suggested by the name of Friday’s final race, there’s music from Irish rockers the Saw Doctors after racing.
We’ll have tips for Saturday’s racing on this website on Saturday morning.