Paul Townend: Gold Cup winner and jockey of the week
Paul Townend: Gold Cup winner and jockey of the week

Cheltenham Festival 2023: Awards of the week as Willie Mullins, Henry De Bromhead and Liam McKenna star

Ben Linfoot reflects on a fabulous 2023 Cheltenham Festival by dishing out awards for ride of the week, race of the week, horse of the week and more.

🏆 Horse of the Week – Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, this was the stuff. Sent off at 4/11 and trading at an in-running high of 1.39 on Betfair, this was the epitome of ‘never in doubt’ with his long leap over the shadowy last the only smidgen of anxiety for odds-on backers.

Only six years old, it seems to be simply a case of what connections want to achieve and though things can quickly go wrong in horse racing, it is scary the heights a fit and healthy Constitution Hill might scale to. Istabraq was the last horse to win three Champion Hurdles and no horse has ever won four, while the lure of a fence and all that a successful chasing career brings sounds like it is on the table, too.

There will be some fun conversations between owner Michael Buckley and trainer Nicky Henderson in the summer.

It's easy for Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle
View from the track on Champion Hurdle day

🏆 Race of the Week – Gold Cup

While Constitution Hill had one worthy rival in the Champion Hurdle in State Man, Galopin Des Champs had several in a Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup for the ages. He had the clear-cut King George winner, Bravemansgame, in second, he had the Savils Chase winner, Conflated, in third, and he had the Grand National winner, and vastly improved Noble Yeats, in fourth.

A few sketchy jumps on the first circuit were slightly worrying, but he warmed to the task under Paul Townend and was travelling all over his rivals on the turn for home. Only Bravemansgame offered a challenge midway up the hill, but Townend held Galopin Des Champs together until after the last when he asked Willie Mullins’ new pride and joy to go and win his race.

The response was devastating as he put seven lengths between himself and the second, 13 and a half lengths between himself and the third, and 14 and three quarter lengths between himself and the fourth. This was a compelling contest and the winner is a superstar.

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🏆 Ride of the Week – Liam McKenna, Good Time Jonny

Of course we had to give ride of the week to Liam McKenna after he delivered Good Time Jonny to win the Pertemps Final. McKenna had 19 horses in front of him after jumping the second last but his patience won the day as he came through the field to win by three and a quarter lengths.

Not bad for a 5lb claimer and trainer Tony Martin heaped praise on him afterwards: “Liam had the patience to sit and wait, and it turned out well. As they turned in he began to pick up a bit again. I know it is a long way and a long call. He never chased them when he could have, when ten lads, including non-claiming professionals, would have chased them. I know Liam is a claimer but he had the balls to sit and think they had done very little, and he judged it to perfection.”

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🏆 Moment of the Week – Honeysuckle

For all that the Honeysuckle debate going into Cheltenham centred around whether she should really be defending her Champion Hurdle crown or not, even those who wished her to take on Constitution Hill will have been swept away by the emotion of her Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle win.

Sent off 9/4 joint-favourite after late money saw off negative vibes following two defeats this season, the collective roar from the packed grandstands as she hit the front under Rachael Blackmore was spine-tingling and that was the catalyst for an outpouring of emotion from trainer Henry De Bromhead, a man who has spent the season juggling grief for his teenage son, Jack, who died in a pony racing accident in September, and managing one of the top racing yards in Ireland.

On her final racecourse appearance, this was magical.

🏆 Quote of the Week – Henry De Bromhead

“It’s just a massive result. We know Jack is always with us and I’m sure he was here on Rachael’s shoulder. Honeysuckle has been a huge part of our life and Jack just adored her – so she as much did it for him as she did for all of us.”

Henry de Bromhead punches the air after Cheltenham roared Honeysuckle home
Henry de Bromhead punches the air after Cheltenham roared Honeysuckle home

🏆 Trainer of the Week – Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins topped the standings come the end of the Festival, but a quick word for close second Henry De Bromhead. His record in Britain this jumps season was 0/10 heading into Cheltenham, including high-profile blowouts like A Plus Tard in the Betfair Chase, Envoi Allen in the King George and Arctic Bresil in the Tolworth, but the hurricane success of Honeysuckle on Tuesday blew right through his raiding party as Maskada bolted up in the Grand Annual on Wednesday and Envoi Allen bounced back to form in the Ryanair on Thursday.

Mullins was number one, though, thanks in part to another fantastic Friday where he had wins for Lossiemouth in the Triumph and Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup. That ensured him six wins for the week, five of them in Grade 1s, and another Festival trainer’s title.


🏆 Training Performance of the Week – Dan Skelton

The Cheltenham Festival has been a tough playground for British trainers in recent years and doesn’t Dan Skelton know it. He started training in 2015 and it only took him 19 runners before he gained his first success with Super Story in the 2016 County Hurdle, but that hardly opened the floodgates.

Four Festival winners from 104 goes was his tally going into this year’s meeting and he was on a losing streak of 46, stretching back to Ch’tibello’s 2019 County Hurdle, but week by week he's been firing in Saturday winners throughout the season so it looked likely he’d get off the Festival cold list.

The Skeli-copter was out in force on day two, brother Harry Skelton’s now famous celebration coming aboard Langer Dan after he edged a thrilling Coral Cup, while his wife, Bridget Andrews, just focused on riding through the line so close was the tussle between Faivoir and Pied Piper in the County Hurdle.

That was a fourth County for Skelton – and winning that race and the Coral Cup in the same week deserves a special award.

Langer Dan and Harry Skelton return in triumph
Langer Dan and Harry Skelton return in triumph

🏆 Jockey of the Week – Paul Townend

For all Paul Townend gets to ride the best horses in the game he won’t be envied by everyone in the weighing room given the spotlight on him during a week like this.

Willie Mullins hasn’t held back when he has thought criticism of his stable jockey has been necessary, too, and with a large clutch of big-race rides throughout the meeting things could’ve gone either way for a man with a target on his back.

He didn’t get everything right and there were rumblings of faultfinding after Facile Vega’s second in the Sky Bet Supreme (did he go too soon?), but in general Townend got things right when it mattered.

He finished top jockey with five wins and all of them came in the Grade 1s; El Fabiolo in the Sporting Life Arkle, Impaire Et Passe in the Ballymore, Energumene in the Champion Chase, Lossiemouth in the Triumph Hurdle and Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup.

Part of his job is making sure he’s on the right one from the Mullins yard and his decision making, in more ways than one, was bang on point all week.

Galopin Des Champs wins the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup
Galopin Des Champs wins the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup under Paul Townend

🏆 Relief of the Week – Stage Star wins for Paul Nicholls

Relief of the week is nothing to do with the tins of hydrophobic paint Gloucestershire council shipped in to thwart the urinating hoards of Festival goers post-racing. No, relief of the week went to Paul Nicholls, Britain’s 13-time Champion Trainer, who finally broke a losing streak of 53 at the Festival with Stage Star in the Turners Novices’ Chase, before Stay Away Fay landed the Albert Bartlett on Gold Cup day.

Politologue in the 2020 Champion Chase was the last time he tasted Festival success before this year and his celebrations said it all.

“We’ve had a great time here over the years but it is hard to get those horses back but we are building them up again,” Nicholls said. “We have got heaps like him to come through and I think the next few years will be positive. It is hard to win here, we haven’t got the numbers the Irish trainers have, and we are up against it all the time, but we can only do our best.”

Bravemansgame ran a belter in the Gold Cup, too, and I doubt it will be 53 runners until his next Fez winner.

Paul Nicholls celebrates Stage Star's win
Paul Nicholls celebrates Stage Star's win

🏆 National Hunt stallion of the Week – Shantou

Only one National Hunt stallion had a double – Shantou – after Stay Away Fay and Impervious both won on Gold Cup day, with 26 different sires responsible for the other winners.

A special mention to the joint seconds – Muhtathir, French Navy, Midnight Legend, Saint Des Saints, Blue Bresil, Poliglote, Masked Marvel, Jeremy, Network, Ocovango, Yeats, Doctor Dino, Sulamani, Stowaway, Fame And Glory, Diamond Boy, Great Pretender, Coastal Path, Timos, Court Cave, Spanish Moon, Mahler, Denham Red, Muhaarar, Shirocco and Cokoriko.

Well done the dads.

🏆 Novice Hurdler of the Week – Impaire Et Passe

As good as Marine Nationale and Stay Away Fay were, Ballymore winner Impaire Et Passe was far and away the most impressive novice hurdler of the week. Time may well tell this was a very strong renewal and all the right horses filled the places behind him, so for him to travel as strongly as he did before putting the race to bed in a matter of strides marks him out as very exciting indeed.

Willie Mullins wasn’t shy in putting him forward as a Champion Hurdle type after the race, despite this performance coming less than 24 hours after Constitution Hill, and if he does go down that route he’ll be bidding to follow in the hoofprints of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Faugheen, who all won the Ballymore over 2m5f before dropping back to win the Champion Hurdle.

Impaire Et Passe is clear over the last in Ballymore
Impaire Et Passe is clear over the last in Ballymore

🏆 Novice Chaser of the Week – The Real Whacker

El Fabiolo made a couple of mistakes on his way to Sporting Life Arkle victory and after eight career starts, including just three over fences, he’s filed away in the ‘could be anything’ drawer. He was very good, but The Real Whacker lands this trophy and not just because we can’t hand them all out to Mullins (although that is a factor).

This was a great story for Paddy Neville’s small yard who had no joy for years in Ireland but have been transformed by the North Yorkshire air, but let’s focus on the horse.

This was a victory for terrific jumping, a no-nonsense ride from Sam Twiston-Davies and a big brave steeplechaser who is a bit of a throwback in looks and style. His technique over a fence will keep him in any staying chase for a long way and he’s one to follow on the Gold Cup trail next season.

The Real Whacker team celebrate at Cheltenham
The Real Whacker team celebrate at Cheltenham

🏆 One For Next Year of The Week – Stage Star at 16/1 for the Ryanair

Talking of next season, it seems the earlier the better for a Cheltenham antepost bet these days so who appeals from all the quotes that have been flying around over the last four days?

The biggest name that missed the Cheltenham Festival was Allaho, but he’ll be 10 next year and has had his training problems, so perhaps Cheveley Park’s grip on the Ryanair will loosen. Of course, they won it this week with Envoi Allen, but he’ll also be 10 next year and is hardly the most reliable, so I’m looking to youth in this division.

El Fabiolo is favourite but I’m sure Mullins will keep him at two miles as long as he’s winning over it and preference is for Stage Star at 16/1. Paul Nicholls knows a thing or two about how to prime a New Course specialist for Cheltenham (think Frodon) and this horse looks cut from a similar cloth after his Turners win.

Only seven, he’ll be in his prime next year and the Ryanair looks a very obvious target for him.

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