CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL 2023

CHAMPION CHASE

The Times, 15th March 2023

What a difference 40 days can make. Back in January Energumene was a confused animal, ballooning the first fence, struggling to find a jumping rhythm, belting the last and finishing six lengths adrift of Editeur Du Gite and Edwardstone’s photo finish. Willie Mullins said it was a blip and the horse would be on song for the Festival. We didn’t believe him. We do now.

Crossing the line Editeur Du Gite was a distant and leg weary fourth a full 30 length adrift with Edwardstone, last year’s Arkle winner, a horse who has never run a bad race in his life, a bedraggled and disconsolate last of the five finishers. Energumene was the monster he has always threatened to be. On this form, on this rain soaked going, not even Constitution Hill’s limitless promise would have ascendancy for certain.

What he did was so brutal that you almost forgot how high other hopes had been beforehand. A cold hard day after Tuesday’s sunny hopes of spring. Tom Cannon smiling warmly as he looked ahead to his ride on Edwardstone. Editeur Du Gite’s team sporting the scarlet scarves that had brought them Champion Chase luck with Sire Du Grugy seven years ago. Harry Cobden calming putting the red gumshield up into his teeth as he led out the parade on Greaneteen. Rachael Blackmore’s long legs out of the stirrups and wound round Captain Guinness as he sashayed down the red rubber horse walk with the energy on the tip of bursting.

Everything looked possible as they rocketed down towards us less Funambule Du Silva who had departed at the first. Editeur Du Gite sailed along at the head of the posse. Captain Guiness was on the far side but Energumene, a very different Energumene, was nearest to us. The leader jumped well but Energumene’s leap had much of the predatory panther about it. Up over the hill and round the turn they swept. Edwardstone was tucked in at the back of them but that could be him, Mr Economical. At the next he was Mr Blunder and the panther had leapt into the lead.

Editeur Du Gite pressed back and Captain Guiness and Nube Negra, out wide, were both up there. But the eye was always drawn to the power in the legs of Energumene. Four fences out Greaneteen attempted a one-horse demolition job and Nube Negra went into fast retreat. Edwardstone was hanging on and the hope was that he would get some wind in his sails as the field was pitched downhill towards the third last. That hope soon proved a fragile one.

Those who had backed Energumene down to 6/5 favourite had a hairy moment as he hurled himself through the third last. But his keel kept stable, he clearly had the legs of the Editeur Du Gite and a brief power surge from Blackmore on Captain Guinness was soon controlled as  Energumene took the second last in stride and after soaring the last found even more propulsion to storm up the hill in a manner markedly more impressive than last year.

Excuses don’t count as currency in championship races and none were offered up here bar the obvious disappointment in the Edwardstone camp. “It wasn’t his day, maybe the ground was a little soft for him,” said Tom Cannon before adding ruefully “I was holding on to nothing at the top of the hill.”

What we needed were explanations and Willie Mullins was good enough not to say “you had been warned.” After January’s debacle he had explained that Energumene had been spooked at the still unfamiliar white painted guard rails in the fences and jockey Paul Townend had told how he was never able to get his partner into a proper rhythm. The trainer had further stressed that defeat them was not a total disappointment because Energumene’s whole season preparation had been for Champion Chase Day.

“Paul came home from the Clarence House and said they won’t beat us again,” said Mullins in the steaming unsaddling enclosure. “The horse’s work and jumping and everything has been brilliant. We were just fingers crossed for a clear round. It did exceed my expectations how he did it. I was hoping to win but the way he did it was something else. It did help coming here last times as he just propped at the first one and that just upset him. This time around we schooled him hugely over white fences and it didn’t worry him today. It looks like he has improved from last year and I’ll be praying for this sort of weather this time next year. The whole game plan will be to work back for this day.” 

This Champion Chase was the record breaking Willie Mullins’ 92nd Cheltenham Festival winner but he is not the only genius connected with Energumene. Owner Tony Bloom has made a major fortune with his extraordinary acumen in working the odds in distant betting market’s not to mention his inspired stewardship of Brighton’s success in the Premier League.

Stories quickly circulated that the “big staking punter” collecting a monster pay out of £580,000 on Energumene from the Brighton based bookmaker Star Sports was none other than Tony Bloom himself. “I had a few quid on, so we’re quids in,.” Bloom said to ITV’s Ed Chamberlin with the easy, clever smile of one who is rarely outwitted.

“We were really confident going in and he’s run a tremendous race. He looked the top horse all the way round and we’re absolutely delighted. There will be celebrations tonight.”

Jealousy will get us nowhere and while Energumene walked back off to his box Tony Bloom set off for the helicopter ride for Brighton’s game against Crystal Palace. Tuesday had been about sunshine, Constitution Hill’s dazzle and Honeysuckle’s tug at the heart strings. This was March and the realities of racing at their harshest. The biggest races take no prisoners. What matters is doing it on the day.

More Posts

AINTREE SECOND DAY 2024

THE TIMES SPORT BROUGH SCOTT Friday 12th April 2024 Agony and ecstasy in the final strides, the 494 yard Aintree run-in took its prisoners again.

AINTREE FIRST DAY 2024

THE TIMES SPORT Brough Scott 11th April 2024 The photo finish is a harsh way to end a horse race. At the end of two