Forget about it. Erase it from your memory entirely. No need to ever mention it again. The monkey is off his back forever. After all the near-misses and the talk of the glaring omission from his CV, Willie Mullins has now won the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup. Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend ensured so with an authoritative display in the feature on the final day of the 2019 Festival.
The leading trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival had plenty of reason to celebrate each of his 64 previous victories at the Festival, but number 65 is the one he wanted more than any.
After six runner-up finishes, Mullins wasn’t winning out of turn and with Al Boum Photo, the Joe and Marie Donnelly-owned gelding beautifully ridden by Townend, he earned place alongside his late father, Paddy, on the Gold Cup roll of honour.
Mullins started the week’s feature with four chances but there must have been many moments in which he thought this would be another year in which it didn’t happen.
Kemboy, the shortest-priced of his quartet, got no further than the first fence, and next best in the betting, Bellshill, lost his position early, made a sequence of errors and didn’t get a whole lot further. Invitation Only raced prominently and moved well until suffering a fatal fall at the tenth fence.
All too quickly, a four-pronged attack became a solo mission but, as Mullins would later recall: ‘every time I looked at him, he just seemed so relaxed’.
Al Boum Photo was fortunate to avoid his stricken stablemate at the back of the tenth fence but that was one of only two anxious moment for the eventual winner.
Reigning champ Native River looked a little reluctant early but worked his way to the head of affairs at the twelfth fence, after which he and last year’s runner-up Might Bite briefly threatened to relive 2018 glories. That was their time. This was not to be.
The patiently ridden Presenting Percy, sent off the 10-3 favourite, was close enough to be a leading player but was never travelling.
Al Boum Photo, in contrast, moved sweetly throughout and was going considerably better than his rivals as they turned into the straight for the final time. In front racing down to the last, he had only Bristol De Mai to worry about from that point, but that challenge never quite materialised and it was last year’s third, Anibale Fly, who ran on best of all to take second place.
The margin of victory was just two and a half lengths but there was an unmistakable authority to Al Boum Photo’s success. Bristol De Mai finished third, while Native River gave everything to finish fourth, with fifth-placed Clan Des Obeaux unable to pick up in the closing stages.
“I thought I might never win a Gold Cup,” admitted Mullins. “I’m obviously delighted, but I’m especially delighted for Paul. To win a Gold Cup is great but to have Paul riding it, to me, is the real result. He was always so natural, always so good. He’s a fantastic jockey.”
Returning to his own success and the wait for this breakthrough success after those six second-place finishes, Mullins admitted: “It used to bug me. The first, second, third one, maybe the fourth but then I thought maybe it’s just not to be, maybe we’re not just going to win a Gold Cup.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win a Champion Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle and delighted to win with Hedgehunter (Aintree Grand National). Racing has been very good to me.
“I have some fantastic owners in my yard, I have some fantastic staff, my wonderful wife Jackie runs the yard, so racing has been good to me and I’ve counted my blessings there and I’ve not focused on the Gold Cup. I haven’t let it burrow into my mind. I’ve kind of said ‘if it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, I’ve had a fantastic time in racing, and I hope to for another good few years to go.”
But it has happened. He has won the Gold Cup, though not exactly as he expected.
“I actually thought Bellshill would take a lot of beating but Ruby was never happy with him and pulled him up early,” he admitted. “Al Boum Photo was probably third or fourth in my pecking order coming into the Gold Cup, but at the top of the hill first time round he was number one.
“It was extraordinary - the other three were gone by the time they came to the second-last first time round. That’s the luck of the game, but every time I looked at Paul, he and the horse seemed to be a rhythm, galloping away, looking so relaxed.
“When he came to the top of the hill when he wanted a chop, he gave it to him, and I thought ‘this horse has got plenty left in the tank’. I didn’t know how much but I said he’s got something there if he keeps jumping.
“Going to the second-last Paul said, ‘time to go’, and all he had to do was jump the last, which he did. We didn’t have any last-fence worries, and it was fantastic. After the last, I just looked at the winning line and what was coming behind us and thought that he will win unless he stops or runs out.”
In victory Mullins emulated his father, Paddy, who won the race with Dawn Run in 1986. It’s a moment he remembers vividly.
“When Dawn Run won the Gold Cup, I didn’t get home for three or four days, and it might take a bit longer this time, but we’ll see,” he added.
“Between Ascot, here and Melbourne, we’ve been hitting the board the whole time, so I am very proud for the whole yard and all my owners who give huge commitments to our yard. It’s a victory for them as well.”
Racing is very much a family affair for the Mullins’, and Willie was delighted to have his mother, Maureen, who first came to the Festival almost seven decades ago, present to witness the victory.
“That’s fantastic. Two weeks before Cheltenham she starts getting ready for Cheltenham and she comes in to top form coming over here and really enjoys it. She nearly came in for a flu vaccination when we gave it to all the horses just in case, she missed it.”
Of the beaten horses, Barry Geraghty, rider of runner-up Anibale Fly, said: “He’s run a blinder. The winner travelled in - he had all the gears. I just needed him to stop or move the winning post on 150 yards.”
Richard Johnson, rider of the defending champion Native River, said: “He’s fantastic. I just didn’t get a good start today and it was just a little but uphill from there really. He got into a nice rhythm halfway through the race and they’ve come to him, but he’s stayed on again to finish fourth. Another good run. His third Gold Cup in a row and, fingers crossed, he’ll be back again next year.”
Of disappointing favourite Presenting Percy, who was later found to be lame behind, Davy Russell reported: “Never fired. The saddle slipped a bit on him as well, but that just set the tone. Never really got into a rhythm, and things just didn’t fall right for him today.”