Trainer Henry de Bromhead and jockey Rachael Blackmore celebrate Honeysuckle winning the race. Tom Maher,©INPHO/Tom Maher/INPHO

Donn McClean: Reflections from an extraordinary week at Cheltenham

Emotion, firsts, lasts – looking back on the 2023 Cheltenham Festival.

TUESDAY WAS EXTRAORDINARY. You could write a book on Tuesday and still fail to do justice to the day. When Constitution Hill put up that scintillating performance to win the Champion Hurdle, and the crowd’s reaction sent a shiver from the base of your spine to the nape of your neck, you thought, well, this is Cheltenham at its finest. It doesn’t get any better than this.

And then it did.

It wasn’t just about Honeysuckle, it wasn’t just about a horse and a horse race. And it wasn’t even only about her and Rachael Blackmore, the perfect match, one final time into the fray together. This was about Henry and Heather de Bromhead, whose lives were changed forever by the tragic loss of their son, Jack, last September. If ever there was an occasion on which the emotion of a crowd and the willingness of the people could influence the result of a horse race, this was that occasion.

Honeysuckle was brilliant again. Rachael Blackmore was brilliant again. We had seen this piece of film three times before, same place, same day, 2020, 2021 and 2022, once in a Mares’ Hurdle and twice in the Champion Hurdle, and we knew how it went. Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore travelling easily, not far off the pace and a little wide, options everywhere.

It looked good when the pair of them loomed up on the outside of Jonathan Burke and Love Envoi on the run to the final flight, but Love Envoi was faster over the obstacle, and your heart sank. Then Rachael asked her mare for that effort, one final time, and once more Honeysuckle responded, delivered that irresistible surge up Cheltenham’s final incline that no rival has ever been able to withstand. It was the fourth time that Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore had raced up Cheltenham’s hill, and it was the fourth time that they had hit the winning line in front.

The reception that greeted the pair of them when they returned to the parade ring is difficult to describe. Emotions running as deep as the crowds that packed high and wide around the winner’s enclosure. People with longer memories than most have said that they had never experienced anything like it there before: the best single day at the Cheltenham Festival ever. And a sprinkling of red ribbons around the place. It was simply a privilege to be there.

There were stories all over the place, like Marine Nationale in the first race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a first Cheltenham Festival winner for Barry Connell as a trainer if not as an owner, given a superb ride by fellow first-time Cheltenham Festival winner Michael O’Sullivan. And, later in the day, Michael O’Sullivan got the leg up on Jazzy Matty for Gordon Elliott in the Fred Winter Hurdle, and he won that too.

A second Cheltenham Festival winner for the young rider, just over three hours after his first and, at the end of the first day, he was at the top of the Leading Riders table for the meeting.

john-gleeson-on-a-dream-to-share-celebrates-winning Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

There was A Dream To Share, winner of the Champion Bumper. Bred by Brian and Claire Gleeson, and owned by Claire Gleeson until he was bought by JP McManus before Cheltenham, the Muhaarar gelding was ridden to victory in his first three bumpers by the breeders’ son John. You would have understood it if his new owner had sought the services of a more experienced rider for the rough and tumble of the Champion Bumper which is, unlike bumpers in Ireland, open to professional jockeys as well as amateurs. But the new owner placed his faith in the horse’s regular rider, and the youngster repaid that faith in spades.

The ride that John Gleeson gave A Dream To Share belied his years and his experience, or his lack thereof. The teenager only had his first ride on a racecourse in March 2021, he had had just one ride in Britain, one ride at Cheltenham, and none at the Cheltenham Festival. And yet, he bided his time, out the back early on and with the patience of a rider who was a Cheltenham regular. In June, he will sit his Leaving Cert.

It was a first Cheltenham Festival winner too for trainer John Kiely, 85-year-old John Kiely, a gentleman who has masterminded A Dream To Share’s campaign, unbeaten now in four, and had him at concert pitch on Wednesday. John Kiely had had big winners before Wednesday, from King Of The Gales and Black Queen and Liss A Paoraigh to Head Of The Posse and Sweeps Hill and Carlingford Lough, but A Dream To Share was a Cheltenham Festival first.

There were other firsts too. Your heart went out to John McConnell when Mahler Mission fell at the second last fence when four lengths clear in the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday, but justice was done when his horse Seddon won the Magners Plate on Thursday under another Festival first-timer Ben Harvey. An hour later, John McConnell watched on a screen from Cheltenham as he had the 1-2 in the 10-furlong claimer at Dundalk.

Angels Dawn’s win in the Kim Muir was a first Cheltenham Festival winner for trainer Sam Curling and for rider Pa King, while Darragh O’Keeffe and Brian Hayes both grabbed their first wins on the mares Maskada and Impervious respectively, while Liam McKenna drove the Tony Martin-trained Good Time Jonny to victory in the Pertemps Final.

The big three Irish trainers were dominant again. Henry de Bromhead added Maskada in the Plate and Envoi Allen in the Ryanair to Honeysuckle’s victory in the Mares’ Hurdle, to take his total for the week to three, while Gordon Elliott equalled that tally courtesy of Jazzy Matty in the Fred Winter Hurdle, Delta Work in the Cross-Country Chase and Sire Du Berlais in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He had near misses too, with Pied Piper, Salvador Ziggy, Chemical Energy and Gerri Colombe all going close. And 1-2s in the Cross-Country and the Stayers’ Hurdle.

paul-townend-and-willie-mullins-celebrate-winning-with-galopin-des-champs Jockey Paul Townend and trainer Willie Mullins celebrate winning with Galopin Des Champs. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Willie Mullins was crowned leading trainer for the week again, and Paul Townend was crowned leading rider. It was another fantastic Cheltenham Festival for both. It’s a pressure week for them, make no mistake. When the level of expectation is as high as it is for the champion trainer and the champion jockey, borne out of the standards that they themselves set and the magnitude of the perennial quality of the Mullins Cheltenham Festival team, there is bound to be pressure. But it’s pressure that you want, that you seek, and it’s all worthwhile when you deliver.

Willie Mullins had six winners, El Fabiolo in the Arkle, Gaillard Du Mesnil in the National Hunt Chase, Impaire Et Passe in the Ballymore Hurdle, Energumene in the Champion Chase, Lossiemouth in the Triumph Hurdle and Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup. Five Grade 1s and a Grade 2. And Townend rode the five Grade 1 winners, with Patrick Mullins riding Gaillard Du Mesnil to victory in the National Hunt Chase.

Energumene was absolutely dominant in the Champion Chase, and El Fabiolo and Impaire Et Passe were both seriously impressive, both hugely exciting novices who are bursting with potential. But Galopin Des Champs was the headline act. Another Gold Cup, a third in five years for trainer and rider, three years after Al Boum Photo’s second, in a race that at one stage, not so long ago, the champion trainer appeared destined never to win.

There was talk about Galopin Des Champs’ lack of proven stamina going into the race, but his trainer didn’t have any doubts. And Townend gave him a superb, ice cold ride that ultimately maximised the magnitude of his superiority over his rivals, out the back and hunting away for a circuit before getting involved in the race with 10 fences to jump.

It was a deep Gold Cup, one of the best in recent years, and the quality came to the fore, with the King George winner Bravemansgame in second, the Savills Chase and Irish Gold Cup winner Conflated in third and the Grand National winner Noble Yeats in fourth. But when Paul Townend loomed up on the outside on Galopin Des Champs at the entrance to the home straight, the crowd started to cheer. When Audrey Turley’s horse jumped to the front over the final fence, the cheer grew louder and it reached a crescendo when he powered up the hill and hit the winning line, seven lengths clear of his closest pursuer.

Extraordinary week.

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