Cheltenham Gold Cup: Galopin Des Champs can cement legacy for centurion Willie Mullins

Repeat winner? Paul Townend and Willie Mullins will hope for back-to-back Gold Cup successes for Galopin Des Champs (Getty Images)
Repeat winner? Paul Townend and Willie Mullins will hope for back-to-back Gold Cup successes for Galopin Des Champs (Getty Images)

Willie Mullins has already reached a century of winners at the Cheltenham Festival. How dearly he would love to add tomorrow’s Gold Cup to his roll call in what is the event’s centenary year.

Galopin Des Champs, the superstar winner of last year’s edition, returns to Prestbury Park as a warm favourite to join an exclusive list of back-to-back Gold Cup winners, alongside such greats as Arkle, Golden Miller, Best Mate and L’Escargot.

If victory for Mullins’s runner 12 months ago was in part about redemption, coming a year after he had gone down at the last when set to run away with one of the meeting’s top novice chases, then round two would see a legend cemented.

Not only could the eight-year-old become just the ninth dual-winner of the 100-year-old race, but also do so off the back of a season bucking the frustrating modern fashion for a softly-softly approach to the Festival showpiece.

When Mullins, the meeting’s most successful trainer in history, belatedly cracked the Gold Cup code to saddle his first winner, Al Boum Photo, in 2019, he did so having stumbled upon a strategy that worked, the horse managing just a single prep run in a middling race at Tramore on New Year’s Day.

The following season, this time by design, the reigning champion trod the same path. He won the Gold Cup again, but having been campaigned so cautiously, would be retired two years later, having only ever claimed those two open company Grade Ones, and never really the public’s heart.

This season, by contrast, Galopin Des Champs has danced every dance. He was beaten on his return at Punchestown, showing a vulnerability that burnishes all the great myths, before roaring back to win at Leopardstown at Christmas in a performance on a par with his Cheltenham heroics the previous March.

There must have been a temptation then to reach for the cotton wool, but instead he turned up at Leopardstown again to win the Irish Gold Cup only last month.

But it is that workload that has plenty of punters willing to oppose his short-price credentials at the top of the market tomorrow, and those that way inclined are blessed with alternatives in what looks the deepest renewal in years.

Fastorslow has lowered Galopin’s colours twice since last year’s race, while Gordon Elliott’s Gerri Colombe is the young pretender taking first aim at a stamina-sapping race he has looked tailor-made for since racecourse youth.

L’Homme Presse was not long ago of a similar profile, a coming force until injury forced more than a year off the track. Back to fitness and form for Venetia Williams, he stands among a home team that includes Bravemansgame, last year’s runner-up, and the Grand National winner Corach Rambler.

The best British chance had perhaps looked like Shishkin, only for Nicky Henderson to withdraw the horse earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Hewick, the €800 (£683) fairytale purchase who rattled home to capitalise at Kempton that day, is another with a big chance, assuming the ground does not ride too soft.

Though this week marks 100 years of the Gold Cup, it is actually only the race’s 96th edition. It was abandoned twice in the 1930s because of poor weather and cancelled outright on three occasions: two during the Second World War, then at the height of the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth.

From novel beginnings, the race has established itself as the sport’s most prestigious event. Among all this week’s features, in outright quality terms, it also looks the best.