Donn's Articles » The boys are back

The boys are back

The similarities between Galopin Des Champs and Energumene run deep: both bred in France, both trained by champion trainer Willie Mullins, both beaten just once over fences, both clear ante post favourites for championship races at the Cheltenham Festival in March, both among the most exciting steeplechasers currently in training.

But both very different too.  Energumene is the reigning Champion Chaser for starters.  For Galopin Des Champs still, it is all about potential.

It is not unprecedented for a horse who has raced just four times over fences to be clear favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but it is not the ordinary course of events either.  That said, Galopin Des Champs is not really part of the ordinary course of events now.

He was a slow burn over hurdles.  He did win on his debut over in France as a four-year-old, but he was beaten in his first three races over hurdles for Willie Mullins.  And when he went to the Cheltenham Festival in March 2021, it was the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle that he contested, not one of the Grade 1 novice hurdles.  

He won the Martin Pipe Hurdle though.  That was probably the start of it.  He wasn’t sent off as favourite, he wasn’t even sent off at a shorter price than his stable companion Gentleman De Mee, but he won doing handsprings.  He travelled like the most likely winner from a long way out, and he bounded up the hill with the well-backed Langer Dan in vain pursuit, and the pair of them pulling well clear of their rivals.

The hypothesis then was that he was a Grade 1 horse, and he duly proved it when he stepped up to three miles for the first time and landed the Grade 1 Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle at the 2021 Punchestown Festival on his final run as a novice hurdler.

Audrey Turley’s horse stepped up again when he started to jump fences last season.  He was dynamite on his chasing bow at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, his jumping was serious for a chasing debutant, and he won by 22 lengths.  Then he went back to Leoapardstown in February for the Dublin Racing Festival and he won the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Novice Chase as easily as he liked.

He would have won the Turners Chase too at the Cheltenham Festival last March had he not come down at the final fence.  It was a strange fall.  He actually jumped the fence well, he looked set for victory, he was miles clear, he traded at 1.01 in-running, 1/100, but he just stumbled on the landing side of the obstacle and came down.

He proved that he was none the worse for that mis-hap when he went to Fairyhouse in April and easily landed the Grade 1 BoyleSports Gold Cup, and then it was all about this season’s Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  There were some Ryanair Chase rumblings, he shows so much pace, he has the pace for two and a half miles, no question, but, after his Fairyhouse win, his trainer seemed to be thinking Gold Cup thoughts and no others.

Defeat for last season’s Gold Cup hero A Plus Tard at Haydock last month saw Galopin Des Champs catapulted clear at the top of the Gold Cup ante post market.  5/2 they say now, no better, 9/4 in lots of places, and you can have 7/1 and better about any other horse you want to name.  

Willie Mullins has been talking about the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown for his seasonal debut for a little while now.  It’s not today, as originally scheduled, which is a pity, the weather has frozen him out.  It won’t be on Tuesday either, Punchestown have already conceded defeat on their proposed contingency plan to run today’s card on Tuesday in the event of today’s meeting falling to the weather.  The hope is that the John Durkan Memorial Chase can be run at some stage between now and Christmas.  Galopin Des Champs should be worth the wait though.   He has to prove that he can compete with the very best staying chasers now, he has never raced outside of novice company over fences, he has to step up, minor to senior, but signs are that he can make that step.

Hopefully Cork will pass the course inspection that is scheduled for 8.00am today because, as long as it does, Energumene will make his seasonal return in the Bar One Racing Hilly Way Chase.  It will be good to see him back.  

At this stage last year, like Galopin Des Champs now, Tony Bloom’s horse had never put a hoof outside novice company.  Four for four as a freshman chaser, he faced his first test in open waters in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork on this day last year, and he passed the test with honours.  

He was beaten in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot on his next run, but it was still a massive run, he was beaten by Shishkin, and he was only just beaten by the Arkle winner in one of the races of the season, overhauled on the run-in after looking a likely winner for most of the race.  

Energumene bounced out of that though and won the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March.  Shishkin under-performed that day, he never travelled and was ultimately pulled up, and that obviously rendered Energumene’s task much easier than it might have been, but you can only ever beat what they put in front of you, and Energumene did that impressively that day to claim the Champion Chaser’s crown.  Then he came back to Ireland in April and super-stamped his new title with an impressive victory in the Punchestown Champion Chase.  

It’s time to embark on the road again now too for Energumene, the Bar One Racing Hilly Way Chase at Cork, set for today, temperatures permitting, has been ear-marked by his trainer for his seasonal return since the autumn.  Same as last year then.  And just as Galopin Des Champs is currently clear favourite for the Gold Cup in March, the Denham Red gelding is currently clear favourite for the Champion Chase in March, half the price of his nearest market rival.

Energumene and Galopin Des Champs will both be long odds-on to win on their respective seasonal debuts.  There’s another similarity.

© The Sunday Times, 11th December 2022