Cheltenham Festival 2023: Gold Cup gives Bowen a chance to come of age

Bowen was a teenage phenomenon and atop a fit Noble Yeats will be a real challenger, but can A Plus Tard, Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame peak once more?

Friday March 17 2023, 12.01am, The Times

You don’t win championship races unless you hit them at your absolute peak. That applies to both horse and rider. For some it means returning to an already established excellence, to others a climb to the very highest level. Chief among the latter in this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup are Noble Yeats and his rider, Sean Bowen.

Noble Yeats, an eight-year-old, has already galloped his place into history by winning last year’s Grand National under a swansong ride from his owner’s son, Sam Waley-Cohen. But no Grand National winner has ever gone on to land their first Gold Cup after success at Aintree and it will need almost two stone of improvement to score today.

L’Escargot, in the 1970s, won the big race at Aintree after dual Gold Cup wins, while the great Golden Miller took jump racing’s blue riband multiple times before and after success at Aintree.

Sean Bowen, 25, was a teenage phenomenon as a juvenile point-to-pointing star in his native Wales before becoming the youngest-ever champion conditional jockey in 2015.

However, he has yet to ride a Cheltenham Festival winner, and his career has been in danger of plateauing in recent seasons, the perched little figure from the principality being more pea on a drum than Pembrokeshire dynamo. The hope for him, as for his Irish-trained partner, is that there is plenty of evidence that this is the time when they can pitch at the very top.

In the eight years since the precocious Bowen dazzled with an amazing last-to-first victory in the end-of-term Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park, he has looked a really good jockey in the making without actually making it.

The talent is very evident up there behind the mane, but it was not sharpened by the hunger for winners that a champion wants.

“The good thing is that the person who realises this is Sean Bowen,” says Mick Fitzgerald, Bowen’s original jockey coach and an analyst with the formidable credentials of having won both the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. “He’s so talented that it was really coming a bit easy for him, but now he has got himself a whole lot fitter, he is really focused, and he is a future champion for certain.”

The results speak for themselves. With 109 winners on the board, he lies second in the current championship behind the runaway leader Brian Hughes, and eight ahead of Harry Cobden, who has climbed above him from a big-race perspective with his Festival and King George VI Chase winners despite being a year his junior and a conditional champion two seasons after Bowen.

Teaming up with Noble Yeats on Waley-Cohen’s retirement has given Bowen a ladder and how splendidly he has taken it. Their first association was something of a cakewalk at Wexford, but their finishing burst next time over the less intimidating of the Aintree fences was impressive enough to put the Cheltenham Gold Cup into consideration. Although only third to today’s rivals Ahoy Senor and Sounds Russian at this track in January, he was giving them weight and closing them down in the finish at a rate that made you think he would be a threat to today’s favourites if the gallop and conditions turn the final stages into a slogging match. Noble Yeats will also now be fitted with the focus-sharpening cheekpieces that he wore last March, but it still remains easier to see Bowen as chief among his peers, as it does last year’s Grand National hero.

A Plus Tard, Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame have all already delivered at grade one level, as indeed have their respective pilots, Rachael Blackmore, Paul Townend and Cobden. Can they peak again this afternoon?

On the face of it, A Plus Tard looks the least likely. He hasn’t been seen for 119 days and that was when pulling up after a feeble display at Haydock.

To be running him on that sort of preparation looks to be rather a stupid thing to do, until you remember that Henry de Bromhead is anything but a stupid trainer. If he says he has the horse back to the star who won last year’s Gold Cup, who are we to doubt him or the ever-admirable Blackmore, whose intuitive skills, no-truck determination and tactical nous were so evident in Honeysuckle’s fairytale farewell at Cheltenham on Tuesday. Galopin Des Champs is unlikely to lack anything from the saddle. Townend has been on board each of the seven-year-old’s five wins over fences as well as the final-fence capsize at last year’s Festival. That losing of legs on landing could hardly be put down to rider error, and with two Cheltenham Gold Cups aboard Al Boum Photo on his scabbard, and Galopin Des Champs having a simple, relentless, head-of-affairs style of running, Townend will not be fazed.

And the wonderfully balanced and enviably tempered Cobden will take the big occasion in his stride, too. His winning ride on Bravemansgame in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park was a thing of beauty, only exceeded by his front-running masterclass on Stage Star yesterday. The question is whether a horse of his speed and style will have what it takes when the final fence has been jumped and Cheltenham’s last demanding incline still has to be conquered. Galopin Des Champs looks more certain to stay and his rolling gallop might just have broken this field before they even turn for home.

But Cheltenham Gold Cups rarely allow easy leaders and an in-form Ahoy Senor is an awesome jumper to have alongside you. What is for certain is that whoever takes it this year will truly deserve their crown.

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