Paul Townend produced an outstanding Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup ride to win steeplechasing’s ‘Blue Riband’ on Galopin Des Champs at Cheltenham on Friday.
The Willie Mullins trained 7-5 favourite delivered a perfect St Patrick’s Day outcome to become the 29th Irish-trained Gold Cup winner.
At the line Galopin Des Champ had seven lengths in hand of the big English hope Bravemansgame with two other Irish contenders, Conflated and Noble Yeats, filling the frame.
How Galopin Des Champs got to the line under an ice-cool Townend was so much of the story of this 95th Gold Cup.
Even allowing for the horse being unproven at the trip, the champion jockey’s decision to drop Galopin Des Champs out the back in the most coveted race of all was audacious.
At one point the partnership was last of the 13 runners and only moved up the pecking order when rivals Stattler and the 2021 winner Minella Indo started finding the pace too hot.
In a late game of musical chairs, the latter wound up ridden by Nico De Boinville after intended jockey Mark Walsh had a fall in the previous race.
Davy Russell was stood down down after the same race and his Gold Cup place on Conflated was taken by teenager Sam Ewing.
If it all felt frantic Townend appeared to treat the whole scenario like the everyday.
With Ahoy Senor cutting out the pace he was content to sit right out the back with a remarkable display of sangfroid in the most pressurised of environments.
Ahoy Senor’s fall six out all but finished the chances of last year’s winner A Plus Tard as Rachael Blackmore’s mount got hampered.
But as the hugely popular bargain buy Hewick took over and momentarily threatened a fairytale outcome, the eye kept returning to Galopin Des Champs’ remorseless progress from the rear.
By the turn in, Bravemansgame made his move for glory and Townend’s response was to take another pull on the favourite.
Considering he was publicly dressed down by Mullins after a couple of rides at last month’s Dublin Racing Festival, Townend’s assurance was remarkable.
Afterwards, no less a judge than ITV’s AP McCoy acclaimed it as being as good a big race ride as he’s ever seen.
“Talk about riding a horse with bottle. Talk about the pressure, the privilege and pressure – oh my God, he coped with it better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” McCoy said.
Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame jumped the last together, but any lingering doubts about the winner’s stamina were banished in style up the final hill.
It was a third Gold Cup success for both Townend and Mullins who scored back-to-back with Al Boum Photo in 2019-20.
In Galopin Des Champs they have a seven-year-old with the profile of a horse that can come back for more too. He is already as short as 11-8 with some firms for 2024.
If the winning jockey made it look poised to a Cheltenham full-house, plus millions watching on TV, from his viewpoint it looked slightly different.
“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,” Townend said.
“He’s a proper, proper horse, because he’s run about three different races and still won a Gold Cup.
“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,” he added.
The stress surrounding a Gold Cup favourite was underlined by Mullins afterwards.
“That was the most pressure I’ve felt. We felt we stuck our necks out and said he is a Gold Cup horse,” he said.
“Paul was under huge pressure too, but he gave him a peach of a ride. He had the confidence to drop in and come through, a brilliant cool ride.
“All thoughts were going through my head like we are too far back but they went such a gallop something had to give. One or two fell and we missed all that so we had luck as well,” Mullins added.
As for the ally he was unusually and publicly critical of last month, Mullins was fulsome in his praise.
“He is brilliant under pressure and the more pressure the better he rides. I’m delighted for Paul because it is a tough job [stable jockey] and he handles it well – and I can be tough too!” he said.
Bravemansgame’s Paul Nicholls came up short of his attempt to equal Tom Dreaper’s Gold Cup record of five wins and might yet have Mullins challenging him to get to that benchmark first.
“The winner is a very good horse and looks a superstar, one of the best,” the Englishman said, while Gordon Elliott was happy with Ewing’s spin on Conflated.
A Plus Tard’s performance in being pulled up just 12 months after winning the Gold Cup by over double Galopin Des Champs’ margin shows the difficulty of backing up in the race.
Only eight horses have ever won it more than once. That might be a statistic that changes sooner rather than later.