Willie Mullins is excited about the prospect of Al Boum Photo defending his Cheltenham Gold Cup crown three weeks tomorrow, and feels his charge has a “fantastic chance” of successfully doing so. Whilst he acknowledges history is against Joe Donnelly’s gelding, he doesn’t believe this year’s opposition is any tougher than the field he readily took care of in 2019.
The last horse to retain the crown was Best Mate, who was doing so for the second time when winning the race in 2004, and prior to that you have to go back to L’escargot in 1971. Many impressive winners of the race have failed to build on that first success, but Mullins is confident his charge is ready for that challenge.
“We’ve had no issues with him this season, so fingers crossed everything stays right between now and the Gold Cup,” said Mullins. “We’ll take him away somewhere – we’ll go wherever we can get in. It’s just for a day away rather than a tough piece of work.
“When last year worked out so well, I said that’s what I wanted to do again. I didn’t even enter him at the Dublin Racing Festival in case I was tempted to run him. I’m probably a creature of habit and when something works, we go back and do it again and hope for the best.
“He’s going to come into the race nice and fresh, off a nice confidence prep run. It can be very hard for Gold Cup winners to come back and win but he has done it, albeit only a Grade 2 race, but at least he has done it, and that’s a fair statistic among recent Gold Cup winners.
“They traditionally don’t come back and win that season, or their form takes a huge drop, and a lot of them don’t come back at all. But at least he’s come back and had a winning return.”
While he also admits he doesn’t spend much time concerning himself with the opposition, Mullins was quite positive when asked whether he felt this year’s renewal was tougher than last.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, confidently. “I thought last year’s Gold Cup was very tough. I don’t know if he’s a better horse this year as I haven’t pressed that many buttons on him, and he’s not a horse that advertises himself well at home. All I know is he’s on target for where we were last year.
“With age and experience he should improve but, statistically, Gold Cup winners find it hard to go back and win, and that’s against him. But, if normal improvement with age does come, then he has a fantastic chance.”
Al Boum Photo’s owner, Joe Donnelly, could have two leading fancies in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with Mullins’ recent Grade 1 winner Asterion Forlonge and the Nicky Henderson-trained Shiskin. As relayed, Donnelly is happy for the horses to go wherever the trainers believe they have their best chance.
Conversely, it seems there is much for Mullins and owner Rich Ricci to talk about, with Faugheen’s travelling plans undecided, and Benie Des Dieux’s target still somewhat up in the air.
Faugheen is “fit and well after Leopardstown” but Ricci and Mullins “haven’t spoken about our plans in Cheltenham.”
Benie Des Dieux has an itch to scratch with the Mares’ Hurdle, having fallen at the last with the 2019 running at her mercy. She could return, but there are other options.
“She is entered in the Mares’ Hurdle, and she’s in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” revealed Mullins, not suggesting for a minute that the Champion Hurdle could be on the agenda. “I like the fact she could have won over the track. She was very unlucky last year, and I’d like to get some unfinished business done.
“She’s a hell of a mare. I thought what she did in France last year was missed by a lot of people over here, and if she had stood up in Cheltenham last year maybe things would be different.”
When pushed on the possibility of the Champion Hurdle, he added: “I had soundness issues with her, and I can keep her sounder going over hurdles, and keep her sounder going a trip.
“It’s all very well planning difficult races for her, but I’ve got her to the stage I can run her two or three times a year, and I’d like to stay at that. If I was going to find another race,
“I’d be going up in trip with her. If she ever went back chasing, she’d line up in a Gold Cup any day of the week – three miles and two furlongs wold be no problem to her.”
One Ricci horse whose target has long been pinpointed is Chacun Pour Soi, who will be part of a Champion Chase which could be the race of The Festival.
The championship race is a rare omission from Mullins’ CV and, with Altior and Defi Du Seuil also on target for the race, adding it to his long list of successes will not be easy – this season, at least. But Mullins is more than hopeful.
“Chacun Pour Soi was much better the other day (at Leopardstown). He sort of needed the run at Christmas, and I think he’s improving all the time and I’m hoping he’s going to be a big player.
“We’ve always thought the world of him. He showed us from day one he could be different class. The day we schooled him in Leopardstown really opened my eyes. I sent him out to follow the graded horses around and after two fences Danny was in front on him and he led them around.
“That was spectacular for a horse of his inexperience, and he was such a natural. If you were ever going to go back riding, he’s one you would love to sit on.
“When they step up into Grade 1 company they have to go out and do it, and he went out and did it. That performance at Leopardstown was the sort of performance we always thought he had in him, and now he’ll need to improve again for Cheltenham. But he can improve because he’s only catching up on experience to the other horses.
“Un De Sceaux still retains a huge amount of ability at his age, and I think connections are keen to go for the Champion Chase. I’d love to see lots of rain for him – that’d be crucial. It’s probably going to be his last hurrah at Cheltenham, so we’ll go with the flow.”
- Native River has been ruled out of the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup with a suspensory tendon injury.Winner of the race in 2018, he would have been heading back to the Festival next month aiming to become the first horse since Kauto Star in 2009 to regain the blue riband event.The 10-year-old had appeared right back to his best this season, winning at Aintree and only recently in the Denman Chase at Newbury.He was also prominent in the betting for the Randox Health Grand National, although his participation in that race had still to be confirmed. Trainer Colin Tizzard’s son and assistant Joe said: “Unfortunately we’ve had to scratch Native River from the Gold Cup this morning - he’s picked up a suspensory tendon injury, which means his season is over.”