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Il Etait Temps can be seen in the Hollywood Syndicate yellow and purple stars colours plugging on for third place (Picture RTE.ie)

South Africa was represented in a Gr 1 at the Cheltenham Festival today by the Willie Mullins-trained French-bred grey Il Etait Temps and the small but courageous horse fought back in a style he has gained a reputation for to finish a gallant third.

Il Etait Temps is owned by Owen Heffer and family of Hollywoodbets in partnership with fellow South Africans the Wayne Kieswetter family, who race under the name of their Ridgemont Stud in South Africa and under their Ireland-based Barnane Stud in Ireland and in the UK.

The Willie Mullins-trained French-bred grey ran in the My Pension Expert Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase over two miles and jockey Danny Mullins wore the familiar Hollywood Syndicate colours.

Il Etait Temps was coming off a Gr 1 win in the Irish Arkle, where at odds 0f 6/1 he beat, among other, the 4/7 favourite, the much vaunted Marine Nationale. His runner up, by a neck, that day was Found A Fifty.

However, the ground was more testing today (officially soft), which was against him as he is a small horse.

He had also only managed fifth place in both of his previous starts at Cheltenham.

Il Etait Temps being saddled up and on parade (Supplied)

 

The 2/1 favourite was his stablemate Gaelic Warrior, who had defeated him by 5,5 lengths over two miles three-and-a-half furlongs at Limerick in heavy ground in December.

Il Etait Temps stuck to the inside today and remained in midfield for most of the contest.

However, he did not jump too well and made a serious mistake four jumps out at a crucial stage just before they came down the hill and that meant he was a bit out of touch with the leaders.

He was a touch outpaced down the hill too, but rallied gallantly coming up Cheltenham’s famously testing hill for the last two or three furlongs which includes ta couple of jumps.

His stablemate Gaelic Warrior started 2/1 favourite as Il Etait Temps drifted out before firming into 7/2.

Gaelic Warrior relished the conditions and had the race won a long way out.

From a handy position he went clear in the run in to win impressively by over eight lengths with the Gordon Ellliott-trained 13/2 shot in second.

Il Etait Temps was beaten just over 13 lengths into third but made up plenty of places from the top of the hill to the finish.

Willie Mullins increased his number of festival winners to 95 with that victory and he added two more later to go to 97. He is the winning-most trainer in Cheltenham Festival history.

Mullins said of his winner, who was well-beaten when unseating Townend at the Dublin Racing Festival: “You could see what difference a hood made to him. He wasn’t trying to jump right and Paul could ride a race on him.

“I thought coming down the hill ‘what was I doing running him over three miles last season when he has that speed’. I think he has enough class now to do two miles and he’ll probably stick to that game now, although you could push him out to the Ryanair distance as well. He’s very adaptable.

“When you saw how good he was at Limerick at Christmas you wouldn’t believe he could run like he did at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival, I don’t know what happened.

“I thought he was going to boil over again in the parade ring, but once he got out and away from the crowd he became a lot more settled. It made him so much easier to ride in the hood.

“I think he’s found his calling now, he looks a Champion Chaser, he could be a Ryanair horse and he won over three miles over hurdles.

“It’s satisfying to get a win here with him after watching what he does at home all the time, to do it in the Arkle is fantastic.

“It’s a huge relief to get one on the board, when we got beaten in the first I felt ‘oh no’ when it looked like we had it won.”

Owner Rich Ricci, who famously does not watch his horses when they race, said: “I obviously didn’t watch it but it sounded like it went smoothly, which was great to hear.

“The week is fine now, we’ve had a winner!

“I was fine with going for the Arkle. Ahead of Leopardstown, Willie really wanted to run him over two miles but we won that argument and it didn’t work out.

“We had a chat, I told him I was relaxed about two miles and it worked out very well.

“The right thing to do with him was probably go to Fairyhouse and Punchestown as they are right-handed tracks, to come here and have the decision justified is very rewarding.

“He’s a horse with immense ability, he has his quirks and if you saw him in the parade (ring) at Leopardstown, he can be a bit mad but that is wonderful.”

Former England cricketer Craig Kieswetter, whose family are part-owners of Il Etait Temps, said: “I say it every time and I mean it every time, as a family and as part-owners we’re delighted to be part of the big festivals and have big runners, but the most important thing the horses are coming home safely.

“Il Etait Temps is a small fella with a big heart, he tried his best and we’re very, very chuffed.

“There were a couple of poor jumps coming home, but we know that he’s an inconsistent jumper and with his (lack of) size and scope the ground may not have suited him, but still the team are very happy.”

Craig Kieswetter being interviewed by Rishi Persad (Supplied)

Barnane Stud also had two other runners on the day, but Echoes In Rain was pulled up and Karia Des Blaises, who is owned in partnership with Own Heffer, did not finish either in the tough conditions.