Cheltenham Festival: Al Boum Photo prevails in a thriller to join the Gold Cup greats

A FRANTIC FINISH saw Al Boum Photo join the Cheltenham all-time greats by becoming the first horse since Best Mate to successfully defend the Gold Cup.

Al Boum Photo ridden by Paul Townend (right) jumps the last on the way to winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase.

Paul Townend’s mount just prevailed from Santini by a neck in a pulsating race that saw all 12 runners in contention before the elite field turned for home.

Only the legendary Easter Hero, Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle, L’Escargot and Best Mate have won successive Gold Cups, testament to Al Boum Photo’s prodigious performance.

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Yet, while Willie Mullins was already the most successful trainer in Cheltenham history and assured of legendary status before his lightly-raced warrior prevailed, it was Townend who was rewarding the long-standing loyalty of Ireland’s champion trainer.

Jockey Paul Townend holds up the trophy after winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase with Al Boum Photo.

After Townend won last year’s Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo, he was named as number one jockey to Mullins following the retirement of the irreplaceable Ruby Walsh who has ridden more winners at the National Hunt Festival than any other rider.

Despite a slow start to the week, they showed that they, too, are unstoppable forces after enjoying a day of Ruby-like domination – Mullins saddling the first four winners and Townend recording a treble.

But what makes this victory even more astonishing is that, just like the 2018-19 season, Al Boum Photo had just one prep race – at Tramore – before the Gold Cup.

And there are those who said the aforementioned Best Mate, winner from 2002-04, was cossetted by Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe for racing just four times a year.

Jockey Paul Townend celebrates on Al Boum Photo after winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase during day four of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse.

No wonder Townend’s beaming smile was as wide as the Irish Sea. “I thought that I would never feel anything like the feeling I had here last year, but I think this is even better. It’s unreal. It’s a credit to Willie – to go to Tramore two years in a row and come here with one run – the man is a genius,” he enthused.

“To be honest, I just went out with the plan of getting into a rhythm like last year. We’ve missed a few fences but he’s always found his feet, and it just happened again at the top of the hill, he was jumping a bit better and I ended up in front a bit sooner than I wanted, but I was able to hang on there and produce him when I needed him at the last. He’s a tough animal.

“It was a very different race to last year – we knew that going out there, everyone knew it was going to be a different race to last year, but it’s the same result, which is the main thing!

In a race of fluctuating fortunes, Al Boum Photo, Santini, Lostintranslation and Real Steel had led the pack heading to two out, where Presenting Percy fell.

Al Boum Photo ridden by Paul Townend (right) jumps the last on the way to winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase during day four of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse.

Townend set sail after the last and the winning post came just in time as Santini closed the gap to a neck at the line. Lostintranslation was a length and a quarter away in third place, with the always-prominent Monalee fourth and Delta Work fifth having struggled to get into contention.

The win confirmed Townend as the leading rider of the week as Mullins heaped praise on the jockey for a nerveless ride on the French-bred eight-year-old owned by Joe and Marie Donnelly.

“We just decided not to break winning formula and just take in the same preparation as he did last year.

“Don’t break a winning formula when it works and it’s paid off thankfully,” said Mullins whose stablemate Real Steel was sixth for North Yorkshire jockey Brian Hughes.

“I was just thinking if he had a clear round and a bit of luck then it was all to play for. I was happy throughout and Paul was brave on him at the last. Paul’s plan came together and I’m delighted for him.

“It’s fantastic and an absolutely unbelievable day. Paul does his own thing and he probably rides better under a little bit of pressure. It’s really, really good for him. I am delighted for Paul. To take over from someone like Ruby Walsh – Paul has come and stamped his authority on his season in Ireland riding for our yard.

“It is a tough act to follow, but he is Paul Townend, stable jockey to Willie Mullins and he is top-class – I’m really pleased for him.”