By Raymond Wigge
As Iroko devoured the hill to land the finale on Gold Cup day, he gave every impression that another circuit would be well within his compass. For the watching patrons, who had left everything of themselves behind long before, it would almost certainly have been one lap too many.
By this point, they'd forgotten the clouds that had hung over the latest edition of the Greatest Show on Turf before Marine Nationale got it on the road with a stylish disposal of last year's Champion Bumper hero Facile Vega in the Supreme. Despite looking a shade inconvenienced by the holding ground, Barry Connell's six-year-old retained his unbeaten profile under Rules and justified every inch of his trainer's cast-iron confidence.
After Facile Vega's defeat, Willie Mullins wasted no further time getting off the mark for the week as market leader El Fabiolo took Jonbon's measure in the Arkle, and a straightforward repeat victory for well-backed Scottish raider Corach Rambler in the Ultima inched the punters ahead before the day's showpiece, the Champion Hurdle, in which Nicky Henderson's Constitution Hill was long odds-on to widen – albeit only marginally – that advantage.
In the manner of Flat outlier Frankel, Constitution Hill looks well-made but unspectacular and races with the choke half-out; unfortunately for his rivals the similarities do not end there. Here, jockey Nico de Boinville, sensing three out that the King-in-waiting could wait no longer, gave up the unequal struggle and sat motionless – no doubt in the same awe as the rest of us – as his mount maintained his own eye-popping natural speed all the way to the lollipop.
Nobody had expected anything less of Constitution Hill, but no such unanimity of opinion accompanied Gold Cup favourite Galopin Des Champs to the post for the week's highlight. With his stamina unproven, his jumping still not entirely convincing, and facing the deepest field assembled in a good few years, the layers queued up to take him on. It would cost them, and in truth that never really looked in doubt from the moment Paul Townend eased him into contention six from home.
King George winner Bravemansgame made a fist of it, carrying the favourite to the last before Townend kicked him on – stamina even looking the key as he stretched away.
In any normal year, these two exceptional performers would have been more than enough and a second Champion Chase for Energumene - this one just as convincing as his first – the icing on a rather moreish cake.
Throw in third Festival victories for streetfighter Sire Du Berlais, last man standing in a lung-busting Stayers' Hurdle, and Ryanair winner Envoi Allen, resurgent after a couple of frustrating seasons, and those clouds – Industry-splitting new whip rules, dwindling fields human and equine, and growing discontent over the all-in cost of Festival attendance among them – might even have briefly parted anyway.
What was your highlight at the 2023 #CheltenhamFestival? Please feel free to comment, especially if voting for "Something Else".— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 17, 2023
But this was by no means a normal year.
As time passes, as these animals and their devotees grow old, it will not be remembered for Constitution Hill. It could be that Galopin Des Champs develops into a stayer for the ages, perhaps Marine Nationale or brilliant Ballydoyle winner Impaire Et Passe will surpass them both. For patron and armchair fan alike, the coming of age of those tyros will likely be lost amid the memory of the race - the hour - that followed the Champion Hurdle.
That hour is set aside for the Mares' Hurdle, the target this time around for dual Champion Hurdler and three-time Festival winner Honeysuckle, in what was slated as her final racecourse appearance. Since slaying the giant Benie Des Dieux in the distaff championship in 2020, the nine-year-old and her regular pilot Rachael Blackmore had already written their own chapter in the history of this storied amphitheatre, with trainer Henry de Bromhead the guarded, detached eye of every chaotic post-race storm.
The tragic death of De Bromhead's son Jack in a riding accident, at 13, in September last year has cast a long shadow over the Winter game in Britain and Ireland and despite Honeysuckle's clear advantage on the book over the field, her SP of 9/4 betrayed fears over her own form in the wake of two defeats - her first under Rules - and a general downturn in stable form.
Jumping the last though, with only pacesetter Love Envoi – officially 12lb her inferior – to pick up, a fourth Cheltenham triumph seemed inevitable, but the slow early fractions had left some lead in her younger rival's pencil and with Blackmore's urgings becoming ever more insistent the gap remained a stubborn length with half a furlong to run.
An emotional De Bromhead hails Honeysuckle
And then it came. As if she knew she'd never be asked again, the veteran steeled herself for one last push, and surged past Love Envoi in the shadow of the post to set the final seal on a career of unprecedented achievement.
From the last to the Winners' Enclosure there came no lull in the din as Cheltenham paid its tribute. De Bromhead, as ever, followed behind – seemingly keeping his head as all around lost theirs, but as the cheers went on, and on some more, the dam burst. His trademark reserve forgotten, the genial son of County Waterford began to punch the air.
At his cathartic release, the choir of Racing’s holiest cathedral now sang for him. This paean to his stable star’s enduring majesty became a communion, a manifestation of empathy, the final passing bells for his lost child.
For those who made and witnessed them, these memories will surely be among the last to wither. For de Bromhead, may they speed him through the slow dusks to come.
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