It’s all over for another year. Following months of excitement and anticipation in the build-up, the latest edition of the magnificent Cheltenham Festival is now in the record books.
It might be gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten, as the 2023 renewal provided a stream of magical moments to linger long in the memory. Here we pick out our five highlights from another mesmerising meeting.
5. None Shall Passe
As ever, there was a seemingly interminable number of preview nights in the lead-up to the Prestbury Park showpiece, with just about every horse running likely to have been given a positive mention at some stage. However, amidst all of the noise, the name of one horse was consistently being shouted the loudest of all.
Hailing from the yard of Cheltenham king Willie Mullins, Impaire Et Passe had looked impressive in winning at Naas and Punchestown, but the word from County Carlow strongly suggested that we hadn’t seen anything like the best of him yet. With the rumour mill moving into overdrive, a flood of money saw the horse backed into favouritism for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in the weeks leading up to the race.
Backers may have been slightly concerned on the day, with a late plunge on the Paul Nicholls-trained Hermes Allen seeing Impaire Et Passe deposed from the head of the market. However, once the race began, there really was only one horse in it, as Impaire Et Passe cruised around before putting the race to bed in a matter of strides as they turned for home. Horses don’t always live up to the hype, but this strapping son of Diamond Boy did so in no uncertain terms, looking a horse out of the very top drawer.
4. The Dream is Alive for Veteran Kiely
This year’s Champion Bumper provided a tale of the young and the old, as Amateur 18-year-old jockey John Gleeson teamed up with veteran trainer John Kiely to repel the massed ranks of the Willie Mullins battalion. 12 times a winner of the festival’s only event on the level, Mullins saddled no fewer than 10 runners ahead of the 2023 edition. However, none would prove a match for Kiely’s sole entry, A Dream To Share.
This result probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who had been keeping up to date with the Irish Bumper scene, with A Dream To Share having swept all before him in three starts, including when seeing off main market rival Fact Or File in a Grade 2 event at Leopardstown. Had he hailed from the Mullins yard, the five-year-old would surely have been sent off clear favourite on the day.
It looked a little ominous for supporters as they turned for home, with A Dream To Share having around eight lengths to make up on the leaders. Gleeson had however belied his years to judge the pace to perfection, driving his mount home down the outside to pull clear of old rival Fact Or File. A first win on his first Cheltenham ride for Gleeson, aboard a horse who was bred by his parents Claire and Brian. Kiely meanwhile proved that it is never too late to enter the winner’s enclosure – bagging his first Festival success at 85 years young.
3. Galopin To Gold
The feature event of the meeting looked an absolute cracker on paper, with the field including former winners Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, King George hero, Bravemansgame, and 2022 Grand National king, Noble Yeats. Talented as that quartet are, it was the Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs who loomed large at the head of the market.
Extremely impressive in winning the John Durkan Chase and Irish Gold Cup, there was a lot to like about the favourite on paper. However, his most recent visit to the Festival had not been a happy one. Backers could have been forgiven had they been on their way to collect their winnings as the horse sauntered clear approaching the final fence in the 2022 Turners Novices Chase, but heartbreak was to follow as Galopin Des Champs slithered on landing and deposited Paul Townend and thousands of betting slips into the turf.
Fast forward to 2023 and no such mishaps were in store, as the good-looking gelding confirmed his status as the king of the division in resounding style. Given an ice-cool ride by Townend, Galopin Des Champs dispelled any stamina doubts when cruising upsides Bravesmansgame in the straight before powering right away up the hill. A stellar performance which, on ratings, was the best Gold Cup display since the win of Kauto Star in 2009.
2. Constitution King of the Hill
In terms of a single day of racing, the opening Tuesday at this year’s meeting must go down as one of the best in the modern era. The day started on a bright note with the success of Marine Nationale in the Supreme – a result which came as no surprise to trainer Barry Connell who had told anyone who would listen that the horse was going to win. Brilliant as that beginning was, better was to come in a mesmerising hour from 3:30 pm.
First up came the latest wonder horse to roll off the Nicky Henderson conveyor belt: the simply brilliant Constitution Hill. Sent off at odds of just 4/11 for the Champion Hurdle, the six-year-old was fully expected to win, but it was hoped he would produce the type of performance to add to his growing reputation as one of the greatest two mile hurdlers of the modern era. It’s fair to see he delivered.
Miles too good for any horse that had the misfortune of crossing his path in his five hurdles starts leading into the race, that level of superiority remained undimmed on the biggest stage of all. Willie Mullins’ State Man had been thumping everything in Ireland, suggesting he may at least give Constitution Hill a race, but even he was unable to lay a glove on the mount of Nico De Boinville. In cruise control throughout, Michael Buckley’s pride and joy merely had to be pushed out to power to a nine-length success. An exhilarating display from a horse who – granted a little luck with injuries – is well on his way to joining the list of all-time greats.
1.Honeysuckle Warms the Heart
In terms of sheer brilliance, the performances of Galopin Des Champs and Constitution Hill topped the Cheltenham charts. However, part of what makes Cheltenham so great is the underlying stories – both human and equine – behind the results. If measured by a combination of excellence and tear-jerking drama, there is one performance which stands above all others, and it came in the race following the Champion Hurdle.
Unbeaten in 16 career starts heading into the current season, Honeysuckle was firmly established as the most popular mare in training. Whilst those popularity levels remained as high as ever, a pair of defeats at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown suggested that she may be a fading force on the track – an opinion which connections effectively acknowledged when rerouting the star from the Champion Hurdle to the Mares’ Hurdle.
There was, however, far more to this story than the horse, courtesy of the huge groundswell of support for trainer Henry De Bromhead and his family. One of racing’s most well-respected characters, the Gold Cup and Grand National winning handler had been on the crest of a professional wave in recent seasons, only to be struck by tragedy when his 13-year-old son Jack was killed in a riding accident.
Put that all together, and it’s little wonder that a victory for Honeysuckle featured high on the festival wish list of many fans. Of course, in life you don’t always get what you wish for, but on this Tuesday in March, the stars aligned to provide a fairytale result, as Honeysuckle dug deep to reel in Love Envoi close home and lift the roof off the Cheltenham stands.