Written by Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
Al Boum Photo became the first horse in sixteen years to defend the Cheltenham Gold Cup crown in a vintage renewal of racing’s most prestigious contest on Friday.
The reigning champion, trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins and ridden by Paul Townend, took the lead at the final fence and fended off a strong late challenge from Nicky Henderson’s game contender Santini to win by a neck.
Legendary chaser Best Mate, who won three consecutive renewals of the race in the early noughties, had until yesterday been the only horse to successfully retain the Gold Cup in the last half-century – but Al Boum Photo emphatically added his name to the elite group of multiple winners with this impressive second success.
The horse’s victory capped off a memorable Festival for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend, who were named Leading Trainer and Leading Jockey of Cheltenham 2020 respectively.
A jubilant Mullins said of his stable’s star performer: “Last year it was very tough, but this time I thought he had a great chance. It was very winnable.
“I saw nothing really to be afraid of. If the same horse turned up, it was going to take something we had not seen to beat him.
“I certainly came here with a bit more confidence than twelve months ago and he did it! I am enjoying it immensely.”
Mullins hinted at a Gold Cup hat-trick attempt next year for his equine hero, declaring that he was “very happy with two, but we will aim for three.”
My favourite picture/moment from the whole of Cheltenham…
Al Boum Photo goes down in history, and Lostintranslation ran an absolute cracker in defeat.
Fingers crossed Aintree goes ahead (in some kind of form) so that Losty can bolt up in the Bowl! pic.twitter.com/QjcbQsKE5s
— Jake Price (@JakePriceRacing) March 14, 2020
Back with a Boum
Going off the 10/3 favourite to win back-to-back Gold Cups, Al Boum Photo travelled comfortably in midfield throughout the first circuit-and-a-half of the race before Townend manoeuvred him to a prominent position.
The prospect of a close finish seemed likely as the contest came to its business end, with all twelve runners still in some sort of contention with three fences left to jump.
Al Boum Photo took the lead at the final obstacle, but victory was far from assured at that point as two hardy challengers loomed threateningly in Paul Townend’s peripheral vision – Cotsworld Chase winner, Santini (5/1), and Betfair Chase champion, Lostintranslation (10/1).
But Al Boum Photo was not for passing as he scampered up the Cheltenham hill, utilising his lightning pace and bottomless stamina to repel Santini’s late lunge by a decisive neck, with Lostintranslation a length-and-a-half back in third.
Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to cross the finishing line in a Gold Cup, coming a creditable 4th on Monalee, as Irish Gold Cup winner Delta Work took 5th place.
Presenting Percy was the sole non-finisher, having fallen at the penultimate fence. He and rider Davy Russell were unharmed.
The first back-to-back winner since Best Mate!
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 13, 2020
Triumph for Townend – at long last
Winning a second successive Gold Cup rounded off a red-letter day for Paul Townend, who had already scored earlier in the afternoon on board Burning Victory in the JCB Triumph Hurdle and Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle.
The 29-year-old from County Cork was forced for many years to play second-fiddle to the legendary Ruby Walsh at the Willie Mullins yard, but has proven himself to be a worthy successor in the Number One jockey role since Walsh’s retirement at the end of last season.
Townend sprung a shock by winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo last year, but had to cope this time with all the pressure and expectation which comes with riding the favourite in the sport’s most important race.
Mullins paid tribute to Townend’s soaraway success, saying: “It’s not easy to take over from someone like Ruby Walsh, but Paul’s gone and stamped his authority on this season in Ireland riding for our yard.
“He’s proved today he’s well up to it.”
Townend himself heaped praise on Al Boum Photo, calling him “a tough animal”, and described winning another Gold Cup as “unreal”.
Meanwhile, Nicky Henderson, trainer of runner-up Santini, only had compliments for his horse despite the disappointment of being edged out at the finishing post.
Henderson said: “Santini couldn’t have done anything more. He never touched a fence and was in a perfect position all the way.
“He fought like a lion all the way to the line.”
Santini looking bright and happy this morning after his @CheltenhamRaces @MagnersUK Gold Cup second yesterday. What a gallant effort & super jumping for him & @NdeBoinville Well done all @sevenbarrows What a brilliant week it’s been. #proud pic.twitter.com/XEW3zWBG7b
— Sarah Henderson (@sarahlhendo) March 14, 2020
Toby Foster’s Race Analysis
Pound-for-pound, this was perhaps not the highest quality field of Gold Cup contenders we have seen in recent years – but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most exciting races at Cheltenham for quite some time.
Not since Lord Windermere’s win in 2014, where two lengths covered the first four across the line, have we seen a more breathtaking finish in the Festival showpiece.
Al Boum Photo’s class is undoubtable, and after a season in which a top-level challenger to his dominance never really materialised, he rightly began the race as favourite.
‘Boum’ travelled confidently throughout, and under a perfect Paul Townend ride, his jumping was largely without mishap. But ultimately it was his Rolls-Royce equine engine which proved decisive, with none of his rivals able to match him for pace or staying power up the hill.
If Willie Mullins can keep his superstar in tip-top shape over the next 12 months, Al Boum Photo will have a massive chance of emulating the great Best Mate in the 2021 renewal of steeplechasing’s most esteemed contest.
Runner-up Santini was well-fancied by some punters, but his impressive win in the Cotswold Chase six weeks ago actually counted against him in my eyes.
The Cotswold Chase is one of the most attritional races of the season, and victory there usually takes so much out of an animal as to make it almost impossible to go on and win the Gold Cup less than two months later. The last horse to record victories in both races in the same year was Looksliketrouble – all the way back in 2000.
To Santini’s credit, he delivered the best run of his career and came within a neck of victory, but ultimately fell short – just as many regular followers of racing anticipated.
Third-placed Lostintranslation has always looked a top prospect and was superb when winning the Betfair Chase earlier on this season, before a very poor run on Boxing Day in the King George VI Chase left some experts casting doubt over his ability to compete at the very highest level.
But Colin Tizzard’s stable star answered his critics in emphatic fashion with a brilliant performance to come within a length-and-a-half of the winner, ensuring that he will be highly thought-of once more when it comes to future Grade One contests.
At eight years of age, he still has the racing world at his feet.
FULL FINISHING ORDER
1st: Al Boum Photo (10/3)
2nd: Santini (5/1)
3rd: Lostintranslation (10/1)
4th: Monalee (20/1)
5th: Delta Work (5/1)
6th: Real Steel (50/1)
7th: Kemboy (8/1)
8th: Clan Des Obeaux (7/1)
9th: Bristol De Mai (18/1)
10th: Chris’s Dream (20/1)
11th: Elegant Escape (66/1)
Fell: Presenting Percy (2nd last fence, horse and rider unhurt)