Cheltenham Festival 2023: A Gold Cup thriller won by a riding masterclass

Galopin Des Champs’ victory was a display of the finest horsemanship from both jockey Paul Townend and trainer Willie Mullins

Friday March 17 2023, 8.30pm

This was a showdown as it should be. Britain’s finest alongside Ireland’s new champion thundering towards the last fence with the Cheltenham Gold Cup between them. Bravemansgame has long proved he is perfectly named. If Galopin Des Champs were to justify the faith of the Irish he would need to dig deep as only champions can.

It was a day with belief crackling in the air from early morning. Warm spring had come to the Cotswolds and there was Galopin Des Champs cropping grass in the sunshine after the white-helmeted Paul Townend had ridden his exercise canter. Groom Adam Connelly spent the summer nursing a T7 fracture in his back when another horse crashed over on him, but now he stroked Galopin Des Champs’ long bay neck and said: “He’s in great fettle, I don’t think anything will be able to match him.”

But plenty of others thought differently. Buoyed by the wonders of Envoi Allen on Thursday, the Henry de Bromhead camp bubbled with hope that either Minello Indo or A Plus Tard would repeat the wonders of the past two years. The redoubtable Shark Hanlon stood nearby alongside Hewick, the bargain buy with whom he has already won Sandown’s Bet365 Gold Cup, the Galway Plate and the American Grand National. You would not put this past him.

Come the afternoon a superb front-running ride from Harry Cobden on Stay Away Fay in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle showed the belief now running in the Paul Nicholls and Bravemansgame camp. Walking into the paddock former champion jockey Peter Scudamore talked of what a powerhouse Ahoy Senor — trained by his partner Lucinda Russell — could be if he hit his jumping right. Nearby, Sir Alex Ferguson glowed with pride that Protektorat was in this arena. Conflated glowed with wellbeing. Could he be a forgotten horse?

By the parade, tensions were twanging. Bravemansgame, complete with scarlet hood to shut out the sound, has permission to cut the proceedings short and Grand National winner Noble Yeats takes the opportunity to slip off down to the start in his wake. Minella Indo is now ridden by a poker-faced Nico de Boinville after intended rider Mark Walsh was badly shaken when his horse Corbetts Cross dived through the wing at the last. Nobody needs reminding this is showtime.

Or perhaps Stattler does. By the time they have jumped the first Patrick Mullins’s arms are pumping to stay in the pack. Hard work and over the next gets him going but it’s always going to be temporary and by the seventh Stattler is last and after the tenth it’s game over.

Up front it’s Ahoy Senor setting the tempo and what a sight he is in full flow. The hope of Scotland holds his great head high and fairly soars over his fences. A squad settles around him, Hewick, Protektorat, Bravemansgame, Conflated and, for a while Noble Yeats. Galopin Des Champs and A Plus Tard are out the back, the favourite once or twice looked laboured but Townend, as with Rachael Blackmore on A Plus Tard, is cool under pressure.

The second circuit in the Gold Cup is where the first prisoners are taken. We had already lost a failing to fire Minella Indo, Noble Yeats could not go the gallop and all was building when Ahoy Senor’s jumping failed him at the last ditch, Sounds Russian came down in the mêlée, and A Plus Tard was all but put out of the race.

Down the hill came the leaders, Hewick now duelling with Protektorat, Bravemansgame still strong outside them, Conflated in the mix and Galopin Des Champs locked on to the back despite belting the third last. Round the turn they spun, five horses flattening into extra effort, two fences to jump and everything to play for. Protektorat was desperate, inside him Hewick just led, Conflated was squeezed for room, Bravemansgame’s gallop is at full bite, Galopin Des Champs now menacing with Townend poker-player still.

The second last took out Hewick, horse and rider somersaulting on the turf. Protektorat was spent and Cobden set Bravemansgame for the last knowing that he would need to outjump the favourite to win this. We were in the very centre of the storm. Two top horses and two fine jockeys winging at the birch, willing mind and muscle to fuse thoroughbreds into flight. Together they met it, together they leapt, and for a few yards together they fought.

But you knew it was over. Five more strides and Galopin Des Champs was the master. Bravemansgame had battled to his limit but now he was out on his feet. Galopin Des Champs stormed on to what, at just seven years old, could be the first of many Gold Cups. Seven weary lengths was the final verdict, Conflated another six lengths away in third and an exhausted Protektorat just run out of fourth by a Grand National-bound Noble Yeats.

It was a masterpiece of race-riding as much as a training triumph from the genius that is Willie Mullins. After the infinite promise of Constitution Hill, the power of Energumene and the emotion of Envoi Allen it was going to be difficult to crown this most splendid of Festivals. But now racegoers yet unborn will be told of the day when Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame came to the last at Cheltenham with the Gold Cup between them. Championships should be settled like this.

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