Donn's Articles » Al Boum Photo

Al Boum Photo

There were not too many surprises among the initial entries for this year’s Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup when they were published on Wednesday morning.  King George winner Clan Des Obeaux was in there among them.  Savills Chase winner Delta Work was there.  Ladbrokes Trophy winner De Rasher Counter was there. 

Last year’s winner Al Boum Photo is among them too.  Willie Mullins’ horse will be bidding to achieve a statistically improbable feat in March, in attempting to win a second Cheltenham Gold Cup in a row.

History tells you that it is an achievement that is not easily accomplished.  Only one horse, Best Mate, has managed to win back-to-back Gold Cups since L’Escargot.  Dan Moore’s horse won his second in 1971.  That’s a half a century ago. 

Kauto Star also won two, but not two in a row, and Kauto Star was a once-in-a-generation racehorse.

In the same period of time, eight horses have won back-to-back Champion Hurdles, 11 horses have won back-to-back King Georges, eight have won back-to-back Champion Chases.  It makes sense.  Instinctively, it follows that the best starting point in the search for the winner of a championship race this year is the same championship race last year.

But the Cheltenham Gold Cup is different.  It is a gruelling contest, unrelenting, unforgiving, run at a pace that shows no mercy against the best staying chasers in the business over three miles and two and a half furlongs and up the final climb to the line.  To win a Gold Cup, you have to have pace and class and stamina, but you also have to have the mentality.  You have to go through a pain barrier.  To win it for a second time, you have to go through the same pain barrier again.

In the last 10 years, six Gold Cup winners returned to Cheltenham, bidding to defend their titles, and all six came up well short.  And in five of the six cases, expectation levels were high.

In 2010, the 2009 winner Kauto Star was sent off at 8/11 and fell at the fourth last fence.  In 2011, the 2010 winner Imperial Commander was sent off at 4/1 and was pulled up. 

In 2012, the 2011 winner Long Run was sent off the 7/4 favourite, and finished third behind Synchronised.  In 2014, Bobs Worth was sent off the 6/4 favourite and finished only fifth behind Lord Windermere.  In 2015, Lord Windermere was sent off at 20/1 and was pulled up.  Last year, the 2018 winner Native River was sent off at 6/1 and finished only fourth behind Al Boum Photo.

The majority of recent Gold Cup winners have been relatively lightly-raced in the lead up to their respective title defences.  Long Run, for example, raced just twice during the season before the 2013 Gold Cup, but he had a hard race on heavy ground in the King George in the second of those.  Bobs Worth, likewise, raced just twice during the season before his attempted defence, but he also had a hard race in the second of those, in winning the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.

It’s modern thinking.  Cool Ground raced seven times during the 1992/93 season before his attempt to land his second Gold Cup.  Jodami raced five times during the 1993/94 season before the 1994 Gold Cup.

Best Mate was obviously a hugely talented and classy racehorse, but the key to his longevity probably lay in the considered manner in which he was campaigned.  Winner of his first Gold Cup in 2002, he raced just twice the following season – he won the Peterborough Chase and the King George – before going back to Cheltenham and successfully defending his title.

At the time, there was significant consternation about the lightness of Best Mate’s campaign.  There was a clamber to see the Gold Cup winner race more often than his trainer was allowing.  Undeterred, Henrietta Knight stuck to a similar schedule the following season with a tweak – Best Mate finished second in the Peterborough Chase, then won the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown – then took her horse back to Cheltenham in March and won another Gold Cup.

Al Boum Photo raced just once last season before the Cheltenham Festival.  Willie Mullins’ horse won the Savills Chase at Tramore on New Year’s Day on his seasonal debut.  He did miss an intended engagement in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, he was withdrawn on the day of the race because of the ground, so he went to the Cheltenham Festival having raced just once that season.

He may have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup anyway, even if he had raced at Leopardstown.  He and Paul Townend may still have danced up the run-in together.  But he may not have.

At the start of the season, Willie Mullins said that Al Boum Photo might follow a similar path this season.  Follow the path that led to victory.  And, sure enough, Marie Donnelly’s horse made his seasonal debut again in the Savills Chase at Tramore on New Year’s Day and, once again, won easily.  His trainer then said that he could go straight to Cheltenham without another race.

That would make sense.  Not only would it be a repeat of the formula that worked last year, but it would also mean that the Buck’s Boum gelding would go to Cheltenham once again as a really fresh horse.  We know that he has the pace and the class and the stamina to win a Gold Cup, he just has to prove now that he has the strength of mind, the will to do it again.  If he does, he will join an elite group of back-to-back Gold Cup winners.  You have to think that his ultra-light campaign will maximise his chances.

© The Sunday Times, 12th January 2020