A fascinating Grand Cross de Pau confirmed the two top exponents of cross country racing in France as favourite Hip Hop Conti reaffirmed his liking for this race with a back-to-back victory by 1 1/2l over the 2022 winner Saint Godefroy, with Harmonie Roque making up the minor placings.

The nine entries whittled down to 7 who faced the starter for this marathon chase over 6,300m (4m), run in heavy ground. A modest pace ensured the field completed without incident on a day enjoyed by nearly 10,300 spectators, many of whom enjoyed a rare view of the Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy, touring the heartland of jumping enthusiasts in this centenary year of the race, to be staged on March 15th.

Favourite Hip Hop Conti made the early running under Clement Lefebvre, with Illico and Saint Godefroy handy. However, Felix de Giles riding Saint Godefroy, opted to take it up from the fourth, precipitating a higher tempo, and the rankings remained largely unchanged until the banquette de Bordeaux for the final time, 4 out, when the pace quickened. Even then rounding the turn in, de Giles still held the advantage, but Hip Hop Conti has a powerful burst of finishing speed, and reeled in his great rival 150m out to win going away.

Lefebvre was effusive in his praise for the Clayeux team after the race, ” It’s a great reward for the work of the whole team and I’d like to thank the people around them for trusting me,” he said as he stepped off the podium. “This is what you get up for every morning, when you’re a jockey”.

Hip Hop Conti wasn’t foot-perfect, making several errors, attributed to the sticky ground. “I didn’t have orders, but I had a plan in my head: to follow Saint Godefroy,” continued Lefebvre. “He made two or three small mistakes so that I had to make an effort to regain my place,  before the banquette de Bordeaux. But my horse has a lot of class and a little something extra.”

Second placed de Giles, leading rider at this winter meeting in Pau, added, “I was able to do what I wanted and if we raced again, the outcome would be the same.”

“We were beaten by a very good horse. There’s nothing to add, except that when I see the atmosphere in the stands and the enthusiasm around this race, we have to push for more events like these.” We can all agree on that point.

Winning trainer Emmanuel Clayeux is no stranger to success at the highest level, including in this race, but like so many racing folk, holds to superstitions that have played out well for him. He didn’t watch the race live, but remarked afterwards, “I think he is one of the best cross-country horses I have trained. The longer the distance, the harder it is and the better it gets.”

Nevertheless, Hip Hop Conti appears only to put in his effort when required. He needed a couple of races to be match fit, last running in the Prix John Henry Wright here three weeks ago. Clayeux has no ambitions to bring the horse to the next leg of the Crystal Cup at Cheltenham. He’ll be rested before returning again next winter where soft ground brings out the best in him.