Galopin Des Champs wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Willie Mullins
Now that is what I call a horse race, that is what I call a champion steeplechaser and that is what I call a truly inspired ride.
In years to come, when people read the bare facts that Willie Mullins-trained 7-5 favourite Galopin Des Champs won the 2023 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Paul Townend on board, they will probably not appreciate just how special this victory was.
On Tuesday we had witnessed the brilliant Constitution Hill land the Champion Hurdle without breaking sweat. It was a display laced with elegance.
Friday was different. Galopin Des Champs was still exemplary but this was a run in which heart and guts mattered just as much. It was a brutal race.
Galopin Des Champs’ rivals knew their best chance to beat him was by testing his unproven stamina over the Gold Cup’s three-and-a-quarter-mile trip. At any other distance, rival jockeys knew he would beat them. It was the angle they had to exploit and, boy, did they try.
Paul Townend celebrated at the conclusion of the race which saw him claim his third Gold Cup
Townend, a usually calm and collected figure, celebrated wildly aboard Galopin Des Champs
Going into the final straight neck and neck with Bravemansgame, Galopin Des Champs showed irresistible turn of foot to go on to deliver a third Gold Cup triumph for owner Willie Mullins
Townend was under orders from Mullins to be patient but those pre-race instructions must have seemed irrelevant to him when virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the jockey on the first circuit.
He kept his cool to gradually peg back his toiling rivals, joining runner-up Bravemansgame at the last of the 22 fences, then pulling away from him in the climb to the line.
The ride earned Townend a third Gold Cup win – he was also successful on Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020 – and only Pat Taaffe, whose four wins include three on the legendary Arkle in the 1960s, has ridden more.
The ride also earned Townend gushing praise from a notable figure, 20-time champion jockey and two-time Gold Cup winner Sir Anthony McCoy.
He told ITV viewers: ‘That’s as brilliant a ride as I’ve ever seen in any horse race. Talk about riding a horse with bottle. Oh my God. Talk about the pleasure, the privilege and pressure – oh my God. He coped with it better than anyone I’ve ever seen.’
Townend shrugged off the praise, preferring to credit his mount. ‘It was messy for me,’ the jockey said. ‘I couldn’t get a clean passage early and he started jumping in the air a bit.
1 Galopin Des Champs (Paul Townend) 7-5 Fav
2 Bravemansgame (Harry Cobden) 6-1
3 Conflated (Sam Ewing) 22-1
Odds courtesy of Paddy Power
‘But when I got a bit of room, he came back into a rhythm and was very, very brave. 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.’
Plenty had questioned whether Mullins was doing the right thing by subjecting his gelding to Friday’s sapping test rather than a shorter race, and the trainer admitted feeling the heat.
‘It was because we had so much confidence in the horse and we thought we had a Gold Cup horse,’ said the 66-year-old Mullins, whose tally of Festival wins is now an amazing 94.
‘But a lot of people were saying he has too much speed and no stamina. What stands out was the pressure I put myself under.
‘That was coming from the fact that we disagreed with everyone who said he wouldn’t stay. It would have been different if he had been a 10-1 shot but he was favourite.
‘People backed him on the belief I was right, I suppose. I was surprised coming to the third-last fence how much I started to feel it. But then I saw Paul back on the bridle and I thought, ‘This could happen’. I was amazed how much it meant to me.’
Lucinda Russell-trained Ahoy Senor applied the race pressure at the start. The pace was relentless and good horses took it in turns to raise the white flag behind him.
First to surrender was Irish Gold Cup runner-up Stattler, who was pulled up before the 11th fence, then 2021 winner Minella Indo stopped with a circuit to go.
Last year’s winner A Plus Tard never threatened and was pulled up before the third-last fence.
By then Ahoy Senor, who still seemed to be travelling well, fell at the 17th fence and brought down Sounds Russian. Running to the second-last, five horses were still in it until Hewick took a crashing fall.
Mullins looked delighted after the conclusion of the Gold Cup – claiming his third such triumph
Conflated, with Sam Ewing deputising for the ‘sore’ Davy Russell, stayed on for third with last year’s Grand National winner Noble Yeats grabbing fourth.
What Mullins liked most about Galopin Des Champs’ effort was that it took Townend an age to pull him up. There was still plenty left in the tank.
At seven years old, he has his best years ahead of him. That is great news for the sport and, if both horses stay fit, we could have a blockbuster clash between Galopin Des Champs and Constitution Hill in the 2025 Gold Cup.
That would be a race worth travelling a long way to see.