Al Boum Photo headlines strong Auteuil squad

Al Boum Photo will bid to join one of the most exclusive clubs in jump racing on Sunday after Willie Mullins confirmed the dual Gold Cup winner will head a three-strong challenge for the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at Auteuil.

Most recently seen when third to the irrepressible Allaho in the Ladbrokes Gold Cup at Punchestown, Al Boum Photo will bid to become just the third horse to win chasing's greatest prize at both Cheltenham and Auteuil, a feat only achieved by Mandarin in the 1960s and The Fellow, who won the Grand Steeple-Chase in 1991 and the Gold Cup three years later.

Mullins is determined to add the Grand Steeple to his extraordinary collection of big-race victories and Al Boum Photo will be joined by Burrows Saint and Franco De Port for Sunday's contest.

"I think Al Boum Photo deserves to run in a Grand Steeple," said Mullins, who has left the ten-year-old in the Grande Course de Haies 24 hours earlier as a precaution.

"He's a double Gold Cup winner at Cheltenham. It'd be nice if we had a horse that could do both. We've left him in the other race just in case but at the moment we have three runners in the Grand Steeple and they will all run.

"The horses left this morning. Al Boum Photo stays all day, jumps well enough I think and he has a rating that could win it."

Mullins feels Al Boum Photo is in fine shape as he attempts a fourth race in a campaign for the first time since his days as a novice chaser.

"He would certainly have the highest rating [of any horse I've run in the race] and he doesn't have that many miles on the clock so even though he's ten years of age, he's still very fresh and well," the trainer said.

"Paul [Townend] felt he was much fresher than he was last season. If he takes a shine to Auteuil, he could be very competitive."

Mullins first experienced success at Auteuil when his father Paddy brought Dawn Run over to win the Grande Course de Haies in 1984, and has since won the race in his own right five times.

However, the alien nature of the obstacles tackled on French chase courses compared to the standardised fences in Britain and Ireland has hindered his ambitions to win the Grand Steeple.

Having saddled a single runner on four previous occasions, Mullins sent out five runners in 2019, with Burrows Saint finishing an honourable fifth.

"It's a race that I've elected to try and win and I think we have the horses that are good enough to do it," Mullins told a France Galop-convened press conference.

Also speaking on Tuesday was Guillaume Macaire, the race's record-holding trainer with six wins, who gave his reasoning as to why British and Irish horses were at such a disadvantage coming to Auteuil.

"The Anglo-Irish horses are used to very rigid fences which they have to give plenty of respect to," said Macaire, who saddles two of the favourites on Sunday in Sel Jem and Feu Follet. "Auteuil is very different and they have to adapt to each different obstacle.

"The sheer variety of obstacles in France can be off-putting here. In general they put in too much effort jumping them and that costs them late in the race, because they've been schooled not to touch them."

When Macaire's observations were put to Mullins he argued that the timing of the race was a bigger problem than the change of jumping test.

"Our preparation is a little difficult because of the timing of the seasons when we go to Cheltenham and then back to Punchestown," said Mullins. "Your water fence is much bigger whereas we don't have any waters in Ireland and the ones in England are very small, so that is a big difficulty.

"Also we don't have any bullfinches. However, I find they adapt quick enough. I know your two big fences down the back are big but I find good jumpers usually take them in their stride."

Mullins also expects to field three in his attempt to land a sixth French Champion Hurdle on Saturday, with Punchestown hero Klassical Dream set to be joined by Tornado Flyer and Kemboy.