"I thought I might never win a Gold Cup," admitted Willie Mullins after finally winning Jump racing's top prize, the G1 £625,000 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup with 12/1 chance Al Boum Photo.
Mullins has now achieved a record 65 winners at The Festival™ presented by Magners. Including today's quartet (Al Boum Photo, Belshill, Invitation Only and Kemboy), he has had 26 runners in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and has finished second six times.
But seven-year-old French-bred Al Boum Photo, owned by Joe Donnelly and his wife Marie, rose to the occasion under Paul Townend - for whom it was also a first Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup success - and beat the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly (Barry Geraghty) by two and a half lengths.
"I'm delighted, and especially for my owners. Marie and Joe have put a big commitment into our yard, so it's great to get one like that. And I'm absolutely delighted for Paul [Townend] - to me he had a very unlucky day in Punchestown [he elected to go past the final fence when in the lead in a G1 novices' chase on Al Boum Photo in April 2018], and to do it on this horse would be special for Paul.
"I actually thought Bellshill would take a lot of beating but Ruby [Walsh] was never happy with him and pulled him up early. Al Boum Photo was probably third or fourth in my pecking order coming into the Gold Cup, and 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, and 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.
"We've had placed horses, obviously, but it's nice to get one on the board.
"The early ones were probably disappointing, but you get used to it. I had probably resigned myself to never winning a Gold Cup, so I didn't really obsess about it and get too disappointed about it. It is like certain jockeys have never won the Grand National and others guys have never won a Champion Hurdle. Racing has been very good to me, I have a fantastic life in racing and I resigned myself to thinking that if I never won it then so be it. Sometimes trainers train certain types of horses in a certain way and maybe it wasn't a Gold Cup way, even though we were so close, so I thought maybe it's not to be. You get one chance at it every year, and this year when three of them were gone, I thought it was another year like that. So I probably had all my disappointment out of me early in the race. I'm thrilled to win it.
"When Dawn Run won the Gold Cup [in 1986, trained by Mullins' father Paddy] I didn't get home for three or four days, and it might take a bit longer this time, but we'll see. 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."
AL BOUM PHOTO'S OWNERS 'START AT THE TOP'
Joe and Marie Donnelly's first winner at The Festival™ presented by Magners was the biggest of them all - the G1 £625,000 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Their Al Boum Photo, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Paul Townend, galloped home to win by two and a half lengths at odds of 12/1, beating Anibale Fly into second.
Joe said: "It's great to have a winner and it's great to have Willie's first Gold Cup also. I had a horse one time trained by Barney Curley, the great gambler - it was called Keep Hope Alive - and he told me he fancied the horse [Al Boum Photo] this morning. He has been a great friend of mine for 40 years and Barney, we are here."
Marie said: "I'm so happy for Willie because he has been such a fantastic trainer. It's really Joe who keeps track of all the horses, but Willie deserves it - he is amazing.
"Melon [second in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on Tuesday] was so exciting the other day, but I've always loved Al Boum. It's the way to go, right? Start at the top!"
REDEMPTION FOR PUNCHESTOWN MISHAP AS TOWNEND AND AL BOUM PHOTO WIN CHELTENHAM'S MAIN EVENT
Paul Townend enjoyed an emotional first win Cheltenham's premier race as well as the most perfect redemption for April's bizarre Punchestown disaster when Al Boum Photo (12/1) beat Anibale Fly (22/1) by two and a half lengths in a G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup finish in which none of the market principals were involved.
Townend, who was also wearing owner Marie Donnelly's colours when second on Melon in Tuesday's G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, had been on the receiving end of all of the blame when Al Boum Photo inexplicably bypassed the final fence in a Grade One novice when in with every chance at Punchestown, but he has continued to enjoy the full support of trainer Willie Mullins whose confidence in him was rewarded in the best possible way.
The 28-year-old was winning his 10th Festival race and his second of the week, following Duc Des Genievres on Tuesday, but he had never finished closer than fifth in seven previous rides in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He said: "I can't believe, I just can't believe it. I am so grateful to Willie and the owners for sticking by me. From the time I was an apprentice, Willie has supported me and I am just so grateful to give him his first Gold Cup.
"I got into a beautiful rhythm everywhere. I wasn't where I wanted to be over the first two fences, but I got a couple of good jumps and, from there, everything just flowed for me. I had a bit of room and he jumped from fence to fence for me."
He added: "He's a real warrior and galloped right to the top of the line. There were horses struggling around me and it was just happening for me. I knew if I kept him upright that I had would have a good chance. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Asked if there had been a concern about Al Boum Photo's stamina, he replied: "You don't know until you try over this distance, especially here, but we felt staying was his forte coming in and I think he really showed it today.
"I am just so grateful for the owners for sticking by me. I think I owed it to the horse. My body is tingling, I swear to God I am trembling, and I can't believe it."
Townend has long been looked upon by the racing public as Ruby Walsh's understudy, but he is no longer in his shadow and currently leads the Irish jockey's title race. Walsh was already changed into his civvies, having pulled up Bellshill, when he congratulated his friend on his way to weigh in.
JOCKEYS' THOUGHTS AFTER THE MAGNERS GOLD CUP
Barry Geraghty, on second placed Anibale Fly (22/1), said: "He stayed and stayed - unfortunately we found one to good on the day. It was a great run."
Daryl Jacob, on the third home Bristol De Mai, 18/1), said: "He has run a blinder. He jumped really well and I had a great spin on him."
Richard Johnson, on last year's winner, 6/1 chance Native River (4th), said: "He has still run a really great race and has stayed on for fourth. It just didn't go as smoothly as last year. He jumped well but was just a bit more sluggish this year. There are no reasons why... For this you have to be in tip top form."
Harry Cobden, on Clan Des Obeaux (5th), said: "He got out stayed. That bit of rain this morning didn't help."
Charlie Deutsch, on Yala Enki (7th), said: "Great ride and I am really happy."
Davy Russell, on 10/3 favourite Presenting Percy (8th), said: "We didn't get on great. It didn't really happen."
Jack Kennedy, on Shattered Love (9th), said: "It was a grand run."
Nico de Boinville, on Might Bite, said: "I was never as happy as I was last year. I could never get into a rhythm. He wasn't jumping out of that ground quite as well as I would have liked. We have turned in and I have just cut out. I would say we could drop him back to two and a half [furlongs] on better ground and he might be some semblance of his old self."
Ruby Walsh, who pulled-upon Bellshill, said: "He made some bad mistakes."
3:30pm Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1) 3m 2f 70y £625,000
1 Al Boum Photo (FR) 7 11 10 Willie Mullins IRE Marie Donnelly Paul Townend 12/1
2 Anibale Fly (FR) ts 9 11 10 Tony Martin IRE J P McManus Barry Geraghty 22/1
3 Bristol de Mai (FR) 8 11 10 Nigel Twiston-Davies Simon Munir & Mr Isaac Souede Daryl Jacob 18/1
4 Native River (IRE) p 9 11 10 Colin Tizzard Brocade Racing Richard Johnson 6/1
5 Clan des Obeaux (FR) 7 11 10 Paul Nicholls Mr & Mrs Paul Barber, Ged Mason, Sir Alex Ferguson Harry Cobden 5/1
6 Elegant Escape (IRE) 7 11 10 Colin Tizzard J P Romans Tom O'Brien 20/1
7 Yala Enki (FR) 9 11 10 Venetia Williams Hills of Ledbury (Aga) Charlie Deutsch 100/1
8 Presenting Percy ts 8 11 10 Pat Kelly IRE Philip Reynolds Davy Russell 100/30 Fav
9 Shattered Love (IRE) ts 8 11 3 Gordon Elliott IRE Gigginstown House Stud Jack Kennedy 20/1
BD Definitly Red (IRE) 10 11 10 Brian Ellison Phil & Julie Martin Danny Cook 50/1
FELL Invitation Only (IRE) 8 11 10 Willie Mullins IRE Andrea & Graham Wylie Mr Patrick Mullins 33/1
PU Bellshill (IRE) 9 11 10 Willie Mullins IRE Andrea & Graham Wylie Ruby Walsh 9/1
PU Double Shuffle (IRE) h 9 11 10 Tom George Crossed Fingers Partnership Jonathan Burke 100/1
PU Might Bite (IRE) 10 11 10 Nicky Henderson The Knot Again Partnership Nico de Boinville 14/1
PU Thistlecrack 11 11 10 Colin Tizzard John and Heather Snook Tom Scudamore 12/1
UR Kemboy (FR) 7 11 10 Willie Mullins IRE Supreme Racing/Brett Graham/Ken Sharp David Mullins 8/1
Distances: 2½, 3¾, 3, 1¾, 15, 3½, 3½, 2¾
Time: 6m 39.06s
Tote Win: £14.60 Places: £4.90, £5.70; £4.60 Exacta: £229.50
First Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup success for trainer Willie Mullins after saddling the runner-up six times
Willie Mullins - 65th winner at The Festival
Paul Townend - 10th winner at The Festival
Statement from Cheltenham Racecourse about Invitation Only
Sadly Invitation Only sustained an injury in the G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He was immediately attended to by the veterinary team, who very sadly determined that it was necessary to euthanize him on welfare grounds.
As animal lovers, we hate to lose any horse and of course we shall review this incident.
Our thoughts are with Invitation Only's connections.