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Timeform Awards: Horse of the Season

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Galopin des Champs was voted Horse of the Season for the 2023/24 jumps campaign by Timeform staff, edging out stablemate State Man to the award.

Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham Gold Cup record reads much better now than it did just five years ago. Prior to 2019 he had still not trained a winner of the race despite numerous attempts but he’s now the trainer of two dual winners of chasing’s blue riband, a unique achievement in the history of a race which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2024.

Mullins’ first bid to win the Gold Cup came with Florida Pearl who was placed in two of his three attempts, finishing third to See More Business when favourite in 1999 and second to Looks Like Trouble a year later. Florida Pearl, who was already a dual Festival winner in the Champion Bumper and what is now the Brown Advisory, was to be the first of no fewer than six runners-up Mullins would saddle before his Gold Cup fortunes took a turn for the better. His previous season’s Grand National winner Hedgehunter was second to War of Attrition in 2006, while in 2013 Sir des Champs found only Bobs Worth too good.

A year later, Mullins went agonisingly close with 16/1-shot On His Own who passed the post only a short head behind Lord Windermere but still had prospects of being awarded the race after suffering interference on the run-in, though after a lengthy stewards’ inquiry the result was allowed to stand. With Djakadam then finishing second to Coneygree in 2015 and to Don Cossack a year later, Mullins therefore had the runner-up four years running.

Paddy Mullins famously won the 1986 Gold Cup with the brilliant mare Dawn Run and the chaser who finally made the breakthrough win for his son was Al Boum Photo, one of four runners for Closutton in 2019 and the only one of the quartet to complete. With Ruby Walsh, having his final ride in the Gold Cup before his retirement, choosing to partner Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill instead, Al Boum Photo was sent off at 12/1 under Paul Townend. The same partnership justified favouritism a year later at odds of 100/30, with Al Boum Photo becoming the first dual Gold Cup winner since Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009 and the first to retain his crown since Best Mate followed up his initial success in 2002.

Al Boum Photo was sent off favourite again in 2021 in his bid to emulate Best Mate’s feat of winning three Gold Cups but, despite running well, it was only good enough to see him finish third behind younger rivals Minella Indo and A Plus Tard. In his second attempt to win a third Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo finished sixth behind A Plus Tard a year later.

Al Boum Photo, rated 174 by Timeform at his peak, was a good Gold Cup winner but not an outstanding one. But Galopin des Champs, who has now matched his former stablemate’s feat of winning back-to-back Gold Cups, is the better chaser on our reading of his form and could yet succeed where Al Boum Photo failed and join Best Mate (rated 182 at his best) as a triple Gold Cup winner next March.

Clashes with Fastorslow

Galopin des Champs is now a three-time Festival winner in all, having won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle in 2021, though he should really have a perfect record of four Festival wins having fallen at the last in the following season’s Turners Novices’ Chase with the race at his mercy. Galopin des Champs has now won nine of his twelve completed starts over fences, with all three of his defeats having come in races won by Fastorslow.

The pair are the same age and, coincidentally, they both began their careers winning races for Arnaud Chaille-Chaille in France. While Fastorslow might currently have the bragging rights as the winner of three of their five head-to-heads to date when both have completed, there were excuses for each of Galopin des Champs’ defeats and there’s little doubt that he’s the better of the pair on balance for all that Fastorslow is a top-class chaser in his own right.

For the second year running, Galopin des Champs was turned over at odds on by Fastorslow in the Punchestown Gold Cup but besides being end-of-season form, conditions that put the emphasis on speed played more to Fastorslow’s strengths on both occasions than they did to Galopin des Champs who gave the strong impression in the latest Punchestown Gold Cup, where his jumping wasn’t so assured, that he’s at his very best on more testing ground.

Fastorslow also got the better of Galopin des Champs when both made their reappearance in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase in November. Galopin des Champs had landed the odds in the same contest the previous season, with Fastorslow well beaten, but it was a different story this time, with a rusty Galopin des Champs beaten into third in a steadily-run race over just short of two and a half miles which suited Fastorslow much better.

But with that run under his belt, it didn’t take long for Galopin des Champs to come storming back to the sort of form which had made him an outstanding winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup the previous March. Fastorslow was an absentee from the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on heavy ground just after Christmas but Galopin des Champs faced a new rival in Gerri Colombe who’d shown Gold Cup potential in his novice season and had returned with a win in the Champion Chase at Down Royal. The pair were hard to split in the betting, with Galopin des Champs sent off at 6/4 and Gerri Colombe at 7/4, and they duly finished first and second, but the result was nothing like as close as their odds predicted.

Galopin des Champs almost certainly raced on the right part of the track given the testing ground, steering a wider course than his market rival, but having had a seven-length lead over Gerri Colombe jumping the last, Galopin des Champs extended that to 23 lengths at the line. Even further back were stablemates I Am Maximus, the future Grand National winner, in fourth and Appreciate It, who’d finished ahead of Galopin des Champs when runner-up in the John Durkan, in fifth.

That made Galopin des Champs the odds-on favourite to repeat his 2023 win in the Irish Gold Cup back at Leopardstown in February with Fastorslow taking him on again this time. With just four runners, the steady gallop could have been expected to suit Fastorslow but under a positive ride Galopin des Champs always held the upper hand despite jumping a bit carefully at times and he was able to quicken clear on the run-in to beat Fastorslow by four and a half lengths with something in hand, a result which probably best reflects how the pair measure up against each other. I Am Maximus was the only other finisher after the 2022 winner Conflated unseated at the last, as he had done in the Savills Chase, when held in third.

Cheltenham Gold Cup glory

For the defence of his Cheltenham Gold Cup title, Galopin des Champs was sent off the 10/11 favourite against ten rivals. Best Mate, when winning his third Gold Cup at 8/11 twenty years earlier, had been the only odds-on winner of the Gold Cup since the days of the previous triple winner, Arkle, in the mid-1960s. In the absence of Shishkin, with Nicky Henderson’s horses under a cloud, that left his old Irish rivals Gerri Colombe and Fastorslow as Galopin des Champs’ main dangers, though Fastorslow blundered his way out of the contest on the final circuit when still to be asked for his effort.

Galopin des Champs, on the other hand, jumped soundly tracking the pace, which was in contrast to some decidedly ordinary jumping in his first Gold Cup when he was settled further back in the field. Travelling well, he was shaken up entering the straight, took over in front from L’Homme Presse two out and was in command soon after as he kept on well to beat Gerri Colombe by three and a half lengths with the previous season’s Grand National winner Corach Rambler back in third.

Galopin des Champs’ subsequent defeat at Punchestown isn’t too much of a concern as far as his bid for a third Cheltenham Gold Cup is concerned. After all, he has bounced back from a below-par run there before. But there are a couple of other factors that could present more of a challenge in his bid to join Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate in the pantheon of winners of three or more Gold Cups next March. One is the strong crop of staying novices who will be graduating to open company next season, not least his own stablemate Fact To File who looks a top-class chaser in the making after winning the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase. The other is the possibility of quicker ground which could leave Galopin des Champs more vulnerable as on occasions in the past. The going was unusually testing for a Gold Cup this year, making it only the third renewal this century to take more than seven minutes to be run.

Whether or not Galopin des Champs goes on to land a third Gold Cup, his second victory in the race turned out to be crucial in Mullins clinching his first champion trainer title in Britain. Mullins had less than £335,000 to spare over Dan Skelton at the end of the season so would have finished a close second without the first prize of almost £353,000 which Galopin des Champs picked up in the Gold Cup. For Galopin des Champs’ rider too, his latest Gold Cup victory had wider significance. Now with two wins apiece aboard Al Boum Photo and Galopin des Champs, Paul Townend joins Arkle’s jockey Pat Taaffe, who won his fourth Gold Cup on Fort Leney later in the 1960s, as the jockey with most Gold Cup wins in the race’s history.

Horse of the Season 1-2-3:

  1. Galopin des Champs
  2. State Man
  3. Jonbon
 
 

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ASCOT 15:45

Saturday 22 June
1. ART POWER (IRE) 131
David Allan silk David Allan
Tim Easterby
4. KINROSS 130
Rossa Ryan silk Rossa Ryan horse for course
Ralph Beckett hot trainer
9. SHOULDVEBEENARING 129
Sean Levey silk Sean Levey
Richard Hannon hot trainer
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1st Ross Coakley silk 1. WONDER KID (IRE) 8/131.61f
2nd Dylan Hogan silk 3. TURING 14/115
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T: Hugo Palmer  
All 7 ran.
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1st Adam Farragher silk 1. GRANDLAD (IRE) 2/13
2nd William Carver silk 3 3. ENCHANTING 7/42.75f
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1st Cieren Fallon silk 3. REBAATT (IRE) 8/131.61f
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1st Robert Havlin silk 5. BURRITO 7/18
2nd Cieren Fallon silk ½ 3. RHETORICAL 11/102.1f
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1st Wesley Joyce silk 5. RED HEEL (IRE) 11/26.5
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2nd Robert Havlin silk ½ 1. MYTHICAL GUEST (IRE) 7/24.5
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T: Ed Walker  
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