History was made on Friday afternoon at Prestbury Park as the Willie Mullins-trained, Paul Townend-ridden and Marie and Joe Donnelly-owned Al Boum Photo joined the illustrious band of back-to-back winners of the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Not since Best Mate in 2004 had a horse retained the crown, and there were distinct similarities Henrietta Knight’s superstar and this year’s winner. Knight received plenty of criticism for her light campaigning of her horse, but it worked to bridge a gap of more than 30 years to L’Escargot, the last to retain his crown before Best Mate.
Mullins has adopted a similar plan with Al Boum Photo, even if he admits it was by accident in 2019 but very much a well-engineered plan in 2020.
Before giving Mullins and Townend the breakthrough success 12 months ago, his season was restricted to just one outing – at Tramore on New Year’s Day – and coming here fresh proved the perfect preparation as he produced a career-best performance to claim racing’s blue riband.
Wishing not to change a winning tactic, Al Boum Photo rung in this New Year with another procession around Tramore and returned to Cheltenham every bit as fresh and in the form of his life. The market spoke heavily for him, sending him off the 100-30 favourite, and the race panned out quite well.
A couple of mistakes didn’t help his cause, but they were outweighed by some prodigious leaps which carried him into a prominent position from a long way out. Off what didn’t appear to be a very strong pace, almost the entire field held a chance of sorts as they rolled down the hill for the final time.
Santini had prime position, on the front end and next to the rails, with Al Boum Photo travelling that bit better and Lostintranslation, on their outer, equally so. Santini could go no faster and was outpaced as they raced down to the second-last, as the favourite edged on, with Robbie Power, on Lostintranslation, going with him.
On the outside, also moving with menace, was Real Steel, but when the riders went for everything it was the reigning champ and Lostintranslation who forged on.
Santini, forced to switch right on landing at the back of the last, rallied gamely up the hill but, just as in 2019, it was Townend and Al Boum Photo who emerged triumphant, with more authority than the winning margin might suggest.
The staying-on Santini went down by a neck, with Lostintranslation third, Monalee fourth, Delta Work fifth, and the winner’s stablemates, Real Steel and Kemboy, sixth and seventh respectively.
That history had been against Al Boum Photo was not lost on Mullins, and something which might in normal circumstances have concerned him, but the horse’s prep went perfectly, and he was confident he had him more primed once more.
“I thought he had a great chance,” he admitted. “Last year I thought it was a tough race but this time I thought it was winnable with a clear round. Anyhow, he won it - just about.
“I came here with a fair bit of confidence and I suppose the light campaign paid off. When you win you are right, and I’d imagine he’ll do the same thing next year.
“I didn’t worry much about the statistics - and usually I do - because of the way we had prepared him,” he added. “I thought that statistically this preparation was going to work, turning it on its head a bit.
“I didn’t see anything all year that I was afraid of at all. If the same horse turned up as last year, I thought that it would take something we hadn’t seen to beat him. I’m very happy with two Gold Cups, but hopefully we are going to try for three. He loves Cheltenham and we’ll probably take the same route.
“It’s been an unbelievable day. We didn’t get much luck on Tuesday, but we got a huge slice of luck in the first race and then I think in the second, third and fourth races probably the best horse won.”
At the end of an outstanding week – which took a little time to get going for the team - the winning rider, understandably, also came in for plenty of praise.
“It’s fantastic to have a guy like Paul riding for you,” Mullins added. “He had a tough job taking over from Ruby, but I think today proved that he was well up to it. I’m really delighted he has put his stamp on Cheltenham as our first jockey. An understudy coming in is very tough, and Paul has risen to it.”
Having become a back-to-back winner of the Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo is 5-1 to join the elite band of three-time winners: Arkle, Best Mate and Cottage Rake. Five-time winner Golden Miller’s record might, in this era, be a stretch too far.
But Willie Mullins now has a taste for Gold Cups, so never say never.