Galopin Des Champs cemented his status as the best chaser in training with victory in a pulsating Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.
The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old, who had won the Irish Gold Cup the previous month, went off the well-backed 7/5 favourite under Paul Townend and was gaining redemption for his unfortunate final-fence fall in the Turners Novices' Chase at the meeting last year, when he had victory at his mercy.
The memory of that blip, the only blemish on his chasing record, was erased in memorable fashion, but it was far from straightforward as he had to sweep through from the rear and he put in some scruffy leaps along the way.
Mullins was winning chasing's blue riband for a third time in five years, having previously suffered six seconds in a race that taunted him for so long. Townend has been on board for all three.
"I didn't realise the pressure I was under," the trainer said afterwards. "I'm absolutely delighted for Audrey Turley (owner), Paul was under huge pressure too and gave him a peach of a ride.
"The plan was to drop him in and come through, I said to him 'I think you're on the best horse, the fastest horse, so as long as he doesn't get running with you just tuck him in somewhere and put him asleep' - and he did.
"It just worked out, he gave him a brilliant, cool ride. Everyone was questioning the distance and his stamina, they were going to make it plenty fast so I didn't want him up there in the early exchanges.
"If he has the class, he'll come through, if he hasn't then there's no point. All the thoughts go through your head, have we gone too far back? They had gone such a gallop, something had to give.
"One or two fell and we missed all that, we'd a lot of luck. I think that man on board, when the pressure comes on, he's very good."
There were no hiding places in jump racing's biggest race of the year with Ahoy Senor, winner of the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Trials Day, setting a searching gallop.
WHAT THE VANQUISHED HAD TO SAY - CLICK HERE
He was still travelling powerfully at the head of affairs when taking a heavy fall six out, bringing down the luckless Sounds Russian in the process and hampering A Plus Tard, the brilliant winner last year.
By that stage, Minella Indo, the 2021 winer, had already been pulled up, along with the lifeless Stattler, who had been friendless in the betting. Rachael Blackmore also threw in the towel on A Plus Tard after he was hampered.
As Ahoy Senor exited, Galopin Des Champs put in a mighty leap to signal he was warming to his task. By that stage, he was travelling as well as he had at any stage in the race.
Turning for home, Galopin Des Champs had finally engaged turbo, tanking along on the bridle behind Protektorat, Bravemansgame, Conflated and Hewick, who had been left in front.
Hewick is up and on after his heavy fall in the Gold Cup. Thanks everyone for the support. pic.twitter.com/34oZqeYaYC— Shark Hanlon Racing (@jhanlonracing) March 17, 2023
The admirable Hewick had picked up the baton when Ahoy Senor exited and he was still in the thick of things when falling two out. He deserved better after another heroic effort. Like Ahoy Senor and Sounds Russian, he was unscathed.
The stands erupted when Townend pulled out Galopin Des Champs to challenge and invited him to put his stamp on the race.
By the final fence, the outcome rested between him and King George hero Bravemansgame. The pair eyeballed each other before Galopin Des Champs pulled out extra to take the spoils.
The runner-up more than played his part in a gripping contest and, like the winner, has time on his side. Their future rematches should be something to savour.
Conflated finished third, beaten a further six and a half lengths, with last year's Grand National hero Noble Yeats keeping on to be fourth after being badly outpaced. He will now defend his Grand National crown but it remains to be seen how much this effort has taken out of him.
"I was surprised myself how I was over the last two fences," Mullins said. "With this horse, we'd elected him as our Gold Cup horse whereas Al Boum Photo sort of just happened. This fellow, we thought he was good enough and that puts you under pressure.
"Every time we've upped him in trip, it's been no problem. He has that bit of class, you could run him over two miles, two and a half miles. He has that bit of speed when you want it."
Audrey Turley, the winning owner, told ITV Racing: “It’s like a dream come true. It’s like something I’ve never dreamt of. We never thought we would be here with such a wonderful horse as Galopin Des Champs, winning the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.
"Really and truly myself, my daughter Sarah and my husband Greg, we are just so thrilled. We’ve huge support here, all our family are here so the excitement has been high all week, well actually much longer than that.
She added: “We are going to forget all of that [last year], these things happen and in racing anything can happen as we know. So here we are today, beautiful sunshine day, Galopin has won and we are thrilled.”
There had been drama before the race with two late jockey changes. Nico de Boinville came in for the ride on Minella Indo, the 2021 winner, after his intended rider Mark Walsh was injured in the previous race, while Sam Ewing replaced Davy Russell on Conflated after the latter aggravated a rib injury.
Ewing had been getting changed into his everyday clothes when he got summoned for the biggest ride of his career. And what a ride Conflated gave him.
Riding the hot favourite in the Gold Cup brings plenty of responsibility. And when that favourite is out the back early on, not exactly pinging his fences, that responsibility goes up a notch.
Townend didn't panic. He gave Galopin des Champs plenty of time to find some rhythm and, turning for home, resisted pressing on when others might not have counted to ten.
He told Lydia Hislop on Racing TV afterwards: "It was messy for me - I couldn't get a clean passage early, and he started jumping in the air a little bit, but when I got a bit of room, in fairness to him he came back into a rhythm with me and was very, very brave.
"I think he got me out of a fair hole, to be honest - I was a lot further back than I wanted to be, but it was just the ride I had to give him. There was so little fresh ground that everyone wanted to be in it, and the start was very messy.
"He was good and brave. There were horses going left of me and right of me (when the two horses fell at the top of the hill) and he always just found a leg, and you need that luck in racing."
Townend added: "He missed one of the fences coming down the hill, and I thought that was going to put me on the back foot a bit again, but no, straight back on the bridle for me. I don't think the horse understands how good he is, to be honest.
"The Gold Cup brings winning to a different level. Cheltenham is very important, but the Gold Cup just has that little bit more spice to it."
In the past 40 years, Imperial Call, Best Mate, Kicking King, War Of Attrition, Kauto Star, Sizing John and Al Boum Photo have also won chasing’s biggest prize as a seven-year-old. Three of those – Best Mate, Kauto Star and Al Boum Photo – would go on to scoop the spoils at least once more.
Galopin Des Champs emulate the septet and many will fancy him to reign for years to come, although it is rarely that straightforward. He’s now had seven runs over fences and, but for his unfortunate fall at the final fence in the Turners, would be unbeaten.
Best Mate had also had six runs beforehand, but Imperial Call (10), Kicking King (11) War Of Attrition (9), Kauto Star (10), Sizing John (9) and Al Boum Photo (7) all had more experience. Kauto Star and Al Boum Photo both fell at the Cheltenham Festival the year before winning the Gold Cup, just as Galopin Des Champs did.
1 Galopin Des Champs (P Townend) 7-5 Fav
2 Bravemansgame (H Cobden) 6-1
3 Conflated (Sam Ewing) 22-1
Also: 14-1 Noble Yeats 4th
Tote: win £2.40 places £1.80 £2.40 £4.60
Tote Exacta: £12.50. CSF: £8.83. Tricast: £127.26. Tote Trifecta: £157.80
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