If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the philosophy Willie Mullins plans to adopt as he plots Al Boum Photo’s Cheltenham Gold Cup defence.
Last season’s freakishly dry winter meant Al Boum Photo only ran once before this year’s Gold Cup but a lack of match practice proved no problem as he surged to victory to finally lay Mullins’ Gold Cup hoodoo to rest.
And yesterday, as he welcomed members of the racing press to watch his galaxy of equine stars strut their stuff on the Closutton gallops, Mullins revealed he envisages a similarly light campaign for the Joe Donnelly-owned seven-year-old this season.
That’s good news for Tramore as it means Al Boum Photo could be back at the Waterford venue on New Year’s Day where he will attempt to win the Listed Savills Chase for a second successive year.
“That formula worked last year so it mightn’t be the worst thing in the world to stick to that,” the champion trainer says. “Being fresh could be important to Al Boum Photo. I know being fresh for the Gold Cup is probably a help.
“Tramore is a definitive possible; we’re guaranteed to get nice ground down there. I don’t know if they’re getting enough rain at Leopardstown but I’m not going to risk him (on quick ground).”
Mullins’ desire to wrap Al Boum Photo in cotton wool is understandable. After all, when you’ve finished second six times in the race you’ve craved most, the horse who finally secures you the prize deserves special care.
Not that the 2019 renewal was plain sailing. After a circuit, three of the four Closutton contenders were already out of the race. Kemboy fell at the first; Bellshill was pulled up early after before Invitation Only suffered a fatal injury when falling at the 10th obstacle.
“It was an unreal day for me because to me Bellshill and Ruby (Walsh) were going to do it. First of all I was disappointed Kemboy was gone at the first, Bellshill was then pulled up and then Invitation Only fell and I never dreamt your man (Al Boum Photo) would win it but he kept jumping and doing everything right.
“I was disappointed for the other three horses, for the owners and the jockeys – and with Invitation Only the news wasn’t good – so for Al Boum Photo to win was a mixture of emotions.
“But I was amazed at the goodwill from everyone that we had finally won it. I had probably given up on winning it and had resolved not to be too disappointed.”
That Al Boum Photo was ridden by Paul Townend only added to the sense of fulfilment.
The previous April, Townend had hit the headlines for the wrong reasons when he inexplicably took his horse around the final fence of the Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown Festival. Redemption tales don’t come any sweeter.
“I was amazed that when the horse was going to the line at Cheltenham that I thought about it (the Punchestown incident),” Mullins says now. “I never thought about it when putting Paul on the horse for the Gold Cup. To me it was over and done with the following day. You have to move on.”
Having moved on, the retirement of Ruby Walsh has allowed Townend to move up and Mullins never had any doubts the transition would be seamless.
“I think a lot of people haven’t taken into consideration that when Ruby was out injured Paul was first jockey for a long time. He’s done very well, champion jockey at a young age and he took all that in his stride, he’s more mature now, and he’s a great stable jockey.
“He minds the horses at home and he minds them on the racetrack. Sometimes when you get jockeys who are owner’s jockeys, it can be a different scenario. To have a stable jockey is a huge benefit to the horses and the yard.”
Not that Walsh is a stranger, far from it. Three or four times a week he makes the journey to Closutton where his input remains significant.
“It’s the same only different I suppose,” Mullins muses. “He’s not first jockey; he’s a sort of assistant trainer. We use Ruby’s knowledge hugely and it’s no different than when Ruby was recovering from a broken leg, he’d be down here on crutches. Now, he comes down to ride work and sometimes he prefers to watch work with me. We all get together and chat after a work morning and decide on what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what race they’re going to be entered in.”
Does Mullins expect to see another jockey of Walsh’s calibre? Unless one of his girls turns to riding it’ll be very difficult,” Mullins says. “He was tremendous and it’ll be difficult to get another Ruby.”
One of the strange elements of Walsh’s retirement after winning the Punchestown Gold Cup on Kemboy was the fact his boss seemed as shocked as everyone else.
“He caught me on the hop,” Mullins insists. “We thought going to Aintree for the Grand National he might do it. After winning the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse I thought he might do it but it went out of my head when he didn’t do it on one of those two days, I just wasn’t thinking about it.
“Obviously, on the telly, Ted said something and Ruby waved to the crowd crossing the finishing line so people who were watching knew but I hadn’t seen it. And nobody said it to me on the way to the parade ring. It never crossed my mind but it was a proper way to go out. I like it when people do that.
“I walked into Punchestown the following day and I saw the happiest guy in the parade ring. It was amazing the difference in his face structure, all the pressure had gone out of it.”
For Mullins, the pressure remains. Having won the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase is now the sole championship race he has yet to win at Cheltenham.
In Chacun Pour Soi, he has a leading contender to put that right in 2020.
“We’d been waiting for him to come out for a long time last season, but his run at Punchestown was exceptional. We have to try to repeat that form this year.
“He’s in the John Durkan (at Punchestown next month), but there’ll be others. I wouldn’t want him and Min clashing at this point in time.
“He’s comfortable at two miles, but I don’t mind going out in trip. He’ll get an entry in the Hilly Way, and whatever two-mile races that are around before Christmas.
“He’s not fragile, but different things have happened - and because he’s so good, I’ve been inclined to give him more of a break.
“Last year, when he came right, it was too late to go to Cheltenham - but I wanted to get him going. Sometimes when you get them on the track they stay sounder, and he’s been good this year.”
If Chacun Pour Soi has proven tricky to keep right, Un De Sceaux has been anything but. The teak-tough 11-year-old looked as enthusiastic as ever as he led the string on the gallops yesterday and the Tingle Creek at Sandown next month will be his early-season target.
“Un De Sceaux will probably go for the Tingle Creek again,” said Mullins.
“We got it wrong when holding him up in the Ryanair at Cheltenham last year. It didn’t suit him at all, and we won’t be making that mistake again. The way the ground is at the moment suits him really well.”