There were scenes of unbridled joy in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham today as Willie Mullins finally got his hands on the Gold Cup.
The Carlow man is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history but the race his father Paddy had famously won with legendary mare Dawn Run in 1986 had eluded him. He had come close, agonisingly close, finishing second on no less than six occasions. He finally cracked it today, Al Boum Photo, ridden by Midleton-born jockey Paul Townend, landing the spoils at odds of 12-1 before a crowd of 71,816.
“I’ve had six seconds in the race and I had probably resigned myself to the fact I probably would not win it,” Mullins said. “Lots of people in a number of sports never land the pinnacle event and racing has been very good to me. I’ve had a fantastic life in racing with fantastic staff and fantastic owners, so this really is the icing on the cake, as I never expected to win this race.”
Like the successful trainer, the winning jockey was in a state of shock.
“I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it,” Townend said. “You dream of winning a Gold Cup when you grow up and I can guarantee you it’s as good as you dream it’s going to be. From the time I was an apprentice, Willie has supported me and I’m just so grateful to give him his first Gold Cup.”
The day had started on a particularly depressing note, the Joseph O’Brien-trained, JP McManus-owned Sir Erec, regarded as one of the Irish bankers for the entire week, having to be put down after suffering a sickening injury midway through the Triumph Hurdle.
Victory went to English horse Pentland Hills at odds of 20-1, a result that set the tone for what would prove a challenging afternoon for punters.
The biggest-priced winner of the day came in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle as 50-1 shot Minella Indo landed the spoils for Waterford trainer Henry de Bromhead. Minella Indo was carried to victory by Tipperary jockey Rachael Blackmore, her second winner of the week and her first Grade One success.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” she said. “To ride a Grade One winner here is just unbelievable. This exceeds any of my expectations. To be leaving here with two winners is just unbelievable.”
The Tipperary woman was asked if she had any advice for young girls watching her who might wish to become a jockey.
“I’d just say to them if you want to be a jockey, you can be.” She’s living, breathing evidence of that.
After the agony of today’s opening race, there was some sliver of consolation for O’Brien and McManus in the Festival’s final race, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, as Early Doors took the honours at 5-1.
In doing so, he became the 14th Irish-trained winner of the week, making it honours even in the race for the Prestbury Cup. Al Boum Photo’s win ensured Mullins ended the week as the Festival’s leading trainer, a fitting result after finally landing the prize he craved most. Picture perfect, even.