Al Boum Photo (12/1) provided Willie Mullins with a first victory in Jump racing's Blue Riband event, the £625,000 G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup following a thrilling two and a half-length victory in the three and a quarter-mile championship chase.
Ridden by Paul Townend, the seven-year-old son of Buck's Boum took the lead at the second-last fence and galloped on relentlessly following the final fence to defeat the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly (22/1), the mount of Barry Geraghty. Nigel Twiston-Davies' Bristol De Mai (18/1) was a further three and three-quarter lengths behind in third.
Closutton handler Mullins has saddled the runner-up in six editions of the Gold Cup and he was delighted to finally enter the winner's enclosure in the iconic contest.
Ireland's champion Jump trainer, recording his 65th victory at The Festival™ presented by Magners in total, making him the winning-most trainer in the history of the meeting, said: "I was delighted for Paul. It's fantastic to win the Gold Cup but, for Paul to ride it, that is the real result for me. Paul started off when he was 17 and has always been so natural and so good. He was riding as a claimer for me and won the Galway Hurdle for John Kiely. That really put him on the scene. He has just been unlucky that he is there alongside Ruby and, any time Ruby is free, Paul gets to ride the second horse. He is a fantastic rider and hopefully he might be champion jockey again this year.
"Not winning the Gold Cup used to bug me. The first, second, third one and then the fourth - then I was thinking maybe it is not to be. I have been lucky enough to win a Champion Hurdle, a Stayers' Hurdle and I was delighted to win the National with Hedgehunter. Racing has been very good to me. I have some fantastic owners in my yard and some fantastic staff, a wonderful wife in Jackie who runs the yard, so racing has been good to me.
"I have sort of counted my blessings there and not focused on the Gold Cup, I haven't let it burrow into my mind. If it happens, it happens and, if it doesn't, I have had a fantastic time in racing and I hope to for a good few years to go. Two weeks before Cheltenham, my mother starts getting ready and comes into top form over here - she really enjoys it. She nearly came in for a flu vaccination when we had to give it to all the horses, just in case she missed out.
"I suppose Al Boum Photo was my third or fourth choice but I knew that he would go on the ground and we always thought that he would stay. His run at Tramore was not the usual sort of prep run for a Gold Cup but that was it because of the ground. We had him entered at Leopardstown at Christmas and the ground was just too firm and I knew that I would get ground at Tramore.
"The horse has been good and sound, and we didn't get another run because there was no ground to run him on. Credit to all the staff in the yard who ride him out every day and look after him. I am delighted for everyone. I asked Paul what he wanted to do and he said that he was going to jump out, get a position and hope that he would be able to keep jumping and get him balanced. From an early stage, Paul had him in a rhythm jumping, with the reins relaxed and the horse doing it all. Every time he needed a squeeze, Paul was there to give him one and the horse responded. When you get into that sort of a rhythm in a race, it's fantastic, and you just hope you don't get any traffic problems."
Al Boum Photo runs in the colours of Marie Donnelly and Townend, who could become Ireland's champion jockey this term, had received the blame when Al Boum Photo inexplicably bypassed the final fence in a G1 contest at Punchestown in April last year when holding every chance. However, there was never any doubt of Townend riding the horse in today's contest, with Mullins continuing: "Really good credit to Paul and I am delighted for Marie and Joe Donnelly, who have put some commitment into our yard. Melon was second in the Champion Hurdle and this horse - we have had a few upsets, one or two horses weren't as good as we thought they were, but they have put in a huge commitment to the yard.
"There was no question of Paul not riding the horse. Marie and Joe rang me the morning after Punchestown and said to tell Paul that they have had a great life in racing and that was only a small disappointment. There was never a doubt or a word that he wouldn't ride their horses - they said it was just one of those days. They are proper sporting people."
PHOTO PROVIDES THE BOUM FACTOR IN GOLD CUP
Trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Paul Townend teamed up to land their first winner in the £625,000 G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of 12/1 shot Al Boum Photo.
The seven-year-old son of Buck's Boum travelled with menace throughout the three and a quarter-mile event and ran on gamely up the punishing Cheltenham hill to defeat Tony Martin's Anibale Fly (22/1), ridden by Barry Geraghty, by two and a half-lengths.
Al Boum Photo had run just once this season, capturing a Listed contest at Tramore over an extended two miles and five furlongs in January. However, Mullins was hopeful of a good performance from the gelding and he expressed his delight at finally landing Jump racing's Blue Riband event.
Discussing the race, the Closutton maestro commented: "I'm delighted to win the Gold Cup and I'm also delighted that Paul has now won the race. It's also brilliant for my owner [Marie Donnelly] who puts so much commitment into my yard.
"Every time I looked at Paul during the race, he and Al Boum Photo looked so well balanced and he was going along at a lovely rhythm. He was jumping well and at the fourth last Paul asked him for a long stride and he got it, so I started to think that there was a lot of petrol left in the tank. I know Paul's body language and I knew entering the home straight that Paul had not gone for anything. There was a bit of daylight and it opened nicely. They got in a bit close to the last, but they met the last perfectly and I finally thought he was going to make it this year!"
Mullins has saddled the runner-up in six editions of the Gold Cup. Explaining the feeling of finally entering the winner's enclosure in the iconic contest, he remarked: "I've had six seconds in the race and I had probably resigned myself to the fact that I probably would not win it. Lots of people in a number of sports never land the pinnacle event and racing has been very good to me. I've had a fantastic life in racing with fantastic staff and fantastic owners, so this is really the icing on the cake as I never expected to win this race."
Reviewing Al Boum Photo's seasonal debut at Tramore this season, the trainer said: "We were looking for soft ground with him and so we went to Tramore just to get some soft ground. There were only four racetracks at that time of the year that had soft or heavy ground in their description, so it was an important race for us really."
Townend was aboard when Al Boum Photo inexplicably bypassed the final fence in a G1 contest at Punchestown in April last year when holding every chance, but Mullins explained there was never any doubt of Townend not riding the horse in today's contest, with Ireland's champion Jump trainer continuing: "The morning after that Punchestown race, the owners [The Donnelly's] rang me to tell him that what happened was just a disappointing and nothing else. They had absolute faith in him and they've been in racing for a long time, so they know that these things can happen. They said to never worry and that's why I'm especially delighted that Paul was on board to win the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo.
"When we buy horses, I try to buy those who I think are going to be either Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle horses. We've been very lucky with our Champion Hurdle horses as we've had some fantastic winners of that event (Hurricane Fly 2011 & 2013, Faugheen 2015 & Annie Power 2016) and maybe I started to think that my method of training is more suited towards two-mile horses. We have had some nice staying chasers such as Hedgehunter who won the Grand National in 2005, but I did just start to wonder whether we were training our horses to be too fast for the Gold Cup.
"We liked Al Boum Photo's pedigree when we bought him. He had the stamp of a chaser and there was so much stamina in his pedigree too and that is what we liked. We thought he could be a Gold Cup or Grand National horse and that is the dream when you buy these horses."
Townend could become Ireland's champion Jump jockey this season and today's success was his 10th victory at The Festival in total and his second this week following Duc Des Genievres' win in the G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase on Tuesday. Reflecting on the race, Townend commented: "I wanted to ride Al Boum Photo as I just thought the ground would in his favour. The rain was coming and because it was going to be on the slow side, I thought that would be good for him as stamina is his forte. He had the form on his ground. It's huge to win the Gold Cup. To come to Cheltenham and this event is what you dream of. We land here on the Sunday night and riding out here on the Monday, you can just feel the buzz. On the Tuesday morning, everything just goes up a gear again. I was lucky that I had a winner at the start of the week and you can settle into the meeting a bit more then. This place on Gold Cup just seems to step up another notch and it is some feeling to cross the line in front in that race. Everyone wants to be win a Gold Cup and to be as successful as Willie has been and to not win a Gold Cup was probably playing on his mind a bit. Willie is not going to panic and he is going to prepare the horses for the races they are going for. I'm very lucky that I was on his first Gold Cup winner."
Townend was effusive in his praise of Mullins, remarking: "Willie's Cheltenham squad for the meeting as a whole was not the biggest that we've had in certain years and to then go and win the first two races [Klassical Dream G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle & Duc Des Genievres G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase] set us up brilliantly for the rest of The Festival. If you are riding for Willie Mullins, whatever level it is at, you have a chance. Willie is incredible at picking races for horses and you know when he declares them that they definitely have a chance."
The Irish rider also discussed the mishap aboard Al Boum Photo at Punchestown, explaining: "It was great that the Donnellys and Willie had my back after that race. Going into Punchestown the day after that race and for them to say not to worry was a huge thing for me. That's all in the past now and he is a Gold Cup winner. Willie has guided me in the right way throughout his career. It is brilliant for me to be able to repay their faith. They just said after Punchestown to move on from it and to repay them with a Gold Cup is the best feeling in the world.
"I've grew up with racing all my life and I remember rushing off the school bus to try and make it home in time to see the Gold Cup. My memories of Cheltenham growing up are really Charlie Swan and Baracouda along with the great Best Mate. Racing is full of disappointments and you really have to enjoy the big days, but it's important to keep as level as you can. It's a brilliant feeling."