The Cheltenham Festival started today with the first seven of 28 races that will play out over the next four days.

However sadly already on day one, a horse has died.

Just after the 2.50pm Ultima Handicap Chase set off, the horse Highland Hunter suffered an injury.

A spokesperson for the racecourse said: “Highland Hunter was immediately attended by expert veterinary professionals in the concluding stages of our third race but sadly passed away. Our heartfelt condolences are with his connections.”

ITV confirmed: "Highland Hunter has sadly passed away after suffering a fatal injury in the Ultima Handicap. Our thoughts are with connections at this difficult time".

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The opening day of the Festival is usually an explosion of excitement, atmosphere and thrills, but this sad news will have already dented spirits somewhat and spurred on animal rights campaigners to call for a ban.

Iain Green, director at Animal Aid said: "The racing authorities, the breeders, the owners, the jockeys and all equally culpable for putting horses into high-risk situations where their welfare and their lives are endangered. This isn't sport, this is animal abuse."

Around 70,000 spectators flocked to Prestbury Park for the first day of the Festival.

'He knew he had a job to do first'

A tipster posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: "Awful news that Highland Hunter was sadly lost in the Ultima He won a Veterans' Handicap Chase earlier this month and then led Keagan Kirkby's funeral procession; as he was his favourite horse Thoughts with the @FOBRacing  team and his owners."

A Sky partner said: "RIP Highland Hunter Our thoughts are with Fergal O'Brien, Paddy Brennan and all connections".

Highland Hunter led jockey Keagan Kirkby's funeral procession last Tuesday. Kirkby, 25, died following a fall at a horse race in Kent.