Willie Mullins on Monday insisted Al Boum Photo would deserve to be considered among the greatest winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup if he triumphs in the Blue Riband race for a third time next month.
Best Mate is the only other horse this century to achieve the feat and while Mullins is the most successful trainer of all-time at The Festival™ supporting WellChild with 72 winners, his stable star’s rise to the top is remarkable given that he had never trained a Gold Cup winner until 2019.
Prior to Al Boum Photo’s first success, the Cheltenham Gold Cup was one of the few major prizes to have eluded Mullins, who had trained the runner-up on no fewer than six occasions.
Asked how it would feel to win the most prestigious steeplechase of them all for a third time, Mullins compared it to the great Arkle’s achievements in 1964, 1965 and 1966.
He explained: “It would be extraordinary - we never dreamed of it. Two years ago I had given up on the dream (of winning one Gold Cup) and now it’s unbelievable to be on the brink of an Arkle.
“He is easy to train, that’s the thing about him. When you see him in a field he’s unremarkable, but he stands out when he’s on his own. He’s always looking over a hedge to see what’s going on but when amongst the horses he’s just ‘Ordinary Joe’.
“I think it’s a great three-way partnership. There’s Paul (jockey, Paul Townend), the Donnellys (owners, Joe and Marie Donnelly) and the horse. They stuck by Paul after Punchestown and they got their reward. I’d hate to have to change jockeys at this stage but who knows by the fourth day of Cheltenham what will happen.”
Speaking at a virtual press conference, Mullins said he understands why some have refused to put Al Boum Photo in the same bracket as other multiple Cheltenham Gold Cup winning horses.
He added: “He hasn’t advertised himself really during the year but that is the way we have done it. It’s hard to say that is by mistake - he missed Leopardstown because of the ground and we ended up going to Tramore – I have stuck with that plan.
“The fact is he could be going for his fourth win at Cheltenham (Al Boum Photo fell two fences out when in contention in the race now known as the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase in 2018) and is a real Cheltenham horse. Probably the fact of that fall and his subsequent run that year at Punchestown didn’t show him off in the best light.
“He obviously has an engine and if he is able to go back and do it three times then I think can sit up there with any of them. That is something we will worry about if he is able to do it.”
Mullins said it had always been the plan for the nine year old to follow the exact same route to Cheltenham as he did in 2019 and 2020 by making the Grade Three Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore his only other start.
The Closutton trainer said: “He is in great shape and worked well last week. He has a big bit of work coming up this week. He is uncomplicated and very nice to train – little did I think when we bought or when he ran out at Punchestown or when he had the mishap with Ruby at Cheltenham that we would be in this position. He has a funny back history but here he is – a double Gold Cup winner going for his third. We are very privileged to have him.
“We think he is in a good position and any time Paul has ridden him he has been happy with him. I am happy with what I am seeing. There are no negatives at this time and there have been no setbacks. The only surprising thing was that I thought I had him straighter for Tramore but when I analysed it all out, he had such a long break from last year’s Gold Cup and no spring campaign as such. It was a long time back to Tramore and he probably should have had one more piece of work before but he got through it and we learnt from it. He is in great shape going to Cheltenham this year.”
Speaking of potential rivals this year, Mullins added: “I think you have to take both A Plus Tard and Champ seriously. Both are stayers. A Plus Tard is bred to stay and Champ proved that he stayed all day last year. The two have both put in huge performances as their prep run.”
Of his other Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders, Mullins added: “We have Kemboy in there and also Melon. Looking at his replays replay you’d think possibly Melon would go to the Ryanair but we have plenty in that so we’ve got a few discussions.”