Mullins secures elusive first Gold Cup

Renowned trainer had saddle six seconds in the race prior to big-race glory during the final day of The Festival

Paul Townend celebrates after guiding Al Boum Photo to victory in the Gold Cup – Photo: George Selwyn

He had come agonisingly close to winning the Magners Gold Cup with six seconds but on Friday, Willie Mullins’ wait for an elusive first victory in the Blue Riband ended when Al Boum Photo sprinted clear of Anibale Fly and Bristol De Mai to take the prize.

Might Bite, who showed some of his old sparkle, and Native River resumed battle in a rematch of the 2018 edition, but the pair faded as the field headed for home.

That left the strong-travelling Al Boum Photo with the race at his mercy two fences from home. He had plenty left in the tank after clearing the last to win by an impressive two and a half lengths.

Two-time Festival hero Presenting Percy looked primed to fire in the Gold Cup, but Pat Kelly’s charge failed to shine and finished a disappointing eighth, 33 lengths behind the winner.

Not only was the victory a monkey off Mullins’ back, jockey Paul Townend recorded the biggest success of his career for a stable that has supported him since his conditional days.

Townend had benefitted from the support of Mullins and Al Boum Photo’s owner, Joe Donnelly, when he had mistakenly steered Al Boum Photo around the final fence at Punchestown last season with a Grade 1 contest at his mercy.

He said: “I think I owed it to the horse! I got into a beautiful rhythm and from after the first two fences everything flowed.

“He jumped every fence, he’s a real warrior and galloped right to the line. It’s an unbelievable feeling. My body is tingling, I swear I’m shaking!

“You dream of winning the Gold Cup as a child. You ride the pony around the field trying to win it and I can guarantee it’s as good as your dream is.

“Just to repay Joe Donnelly, who kept me on this lad and Melon, with the biggest prize of them all feels brilliant.”

Paul Townend, Willie Mullins and Al Boum Photo’s connections – Photo: George Selwyn

Mullins, the Cheltenham Festival’s winning-most trainer, was delighted to secure the trophy.

The master of Closutton had four runners in the race – Bellshill, who was pulled up, Kemboy, who unseated his rider at the first fence, and Invitation Only, who suffered a fatal injury following a fall at the tenth fence.

He added: “I’m delighted for Paul especially to win it and for my owners who have made a huge commitment to my yard. I got used to the disappointment of not winning it and resigned myself to that.

“This is the icing on the cake and I never expected to get it.”

Al Boum Photo was sourced in France, his only outing there seeing him fall in a three-year-old hurdle. Yet Mullins always believed the seven-year-old would graduate to Grade 1 calibre.

“He had the stamp of a steeplechaser,” he said. “We liked the sire [Buck’s Boum] and we liked his pedigree – there’s so much stamina in there.

“We thought he would be a Grand National or Gold Cup horse. That’s the dream when you buy one of these horses that they can improve and every time you buy them, you hope to be back here in three or four years’ time.”

Al Boum Photo is the second Grade 1 winner of the Cheltenham Festival for his sire Buck’s Boum, following on from Duc Des Genievres dominant performance in the Racing Post Arkle.

Buck’s Boum is one of a number of French jumps stallions who themselves recorded success over obstacles, and is based at Haras d’Enki where he stands at a fee of €5,000.

With another of his sons, Dynamite Dollars, also advertising his prowess for supplying quality progeny, it would be no surprise to see a significant fee rise for the half-brother to Big Buck’s in 2020.

Owners’ Group makes the case for syndicates

For many, owning a racehorse is a large investment but the success of the Owners Group’s Pentland Hills in the Grade 1 JCB Triumph Hurdle showcased how syndicates make it affordable for those wanting to experience the sport of kings.

Launched in 2014, the company was formed to cater for racing fans who wish to share the cost of ownership in one or more racehorses.

Prior to Friday’s victory, the Owners Group’s biggest win came when Sound Investment landed the 2015 Grade 2 Old Roan Chase at Aintree.

Trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Nico de Boinville, Pentland Hills flew up the hill ahead of Coeur Sublime to record a two-length success. He became Henderson’s seventh winner of the Triumph Hurdle, joining First Bout (1985), Alone Success (1987), Katarino (1999), Zaynar (2009), Soldatino (2010) and Peace And Co (2015).

Henderson said: “He nearly fell at the first and I was thinking this wasn’t such a good idea. The rest of it was good, though!

“When he went to Plumpton for his first run after the Flat, I was so impressed with him because he was very professional and jumped very well. There’s a huge number of people involved with this horse and I said to them why don’t we go and have another day out.

“He was far enough behind but Nico gave him a great ride.”

De Boinville, who notched his third winner of the Festival with Pentland Hills, added: “The most fantastic thing is that there’s a massive group of owners in the syndicate and they’ve all got a share in him.

“It opens up the game and allows a lot of people who can’t usually afford one sole horse. Everyone can have a go and it really shows racing is accessible.”

There was a sad postscript to the Triumph Hurdle as hot favourite Sir Erec, trained by Joseph O’Brien for JP McManus, suffered a fatal injury after an incident at the fourth flight.

Blackmore’s double delight

Having secured her first winner at the Festival on A Plus Tard on the opening day of the four-day meeting, jockey Rachael Blackmore rounded off her week with a barnstorming ride on 50-1 shot Minella Indo for trainer Henry de Bromhead in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

Blackmore became the second woman to land a Grade 1 event at the Festival this week, following on from Bryony Frost’s historic success on Frodon in the Ryanair Chase.

She is now the third woman to ride a double at the Cheltenham Festival after Gee Armytage in 1987 and Nina Carberry in 2016.

“I wish I had the words,” Blackmore said. “I’m just so grateful for everyone who has given me the opportunities.”

Skeltons strike again in County Hurdle

Dan Skelton is making a habit of landing the Grade 3 Randox Health County Hurdle and he trained his third winner of the race in four renewals when his brother, Harry, guided Ch’tibello to victory.

The eight-year-old was kept handy throughout and he picked up when asked to deliver a challenge before leading home the Nicky Henderson pair We Have A Dream and Countister.

Dan, overcome with emotion after the race, said: “It’s amazing, I feel privileged to be a part of this, to be a winning part of it. It’s a dream come true, for my family and for my team, all of us. We all work tirelessly to get this.

“We’ve had two winners here this week [Roksana in the Grade 1 mares’ novices’ hurdle]. To have one you work hard, and everyone says ‘great, you did it, you’ve got a winner’, but to have two means you’ve probably not just been lucky.”

Old boy Croco Bay on the mark

Croco Bay proved age is no barrier to success on Friday when the gallant 12-year-old stayed on best up the Cheltenham hill to go two places better in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup than his third in the 2015 contest.

Trained by Ben Case and ridden by Kielan Woods, Croco Bay – who had been absent since July – sealed a memorable first Cheltenham victory for both trainer and jockey at odds of 66-1.

Woods said: “I’m so shell-shocked. I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I sat on a horse and as the years go on maybe you think it’s not going to happen.

“I’ve never been stuck for words, but I am now! I couldn’t believe how well he was jumping – he was meeting Gino Trail on the same stride and landing ahead of him. He was really enjoying it.”

Edwards and Rowley’s first Festival success

Trainer Philip Rowley and jockey Alex Edwards have proved a potent force in hunter chases and point-to-points, and the pair secured their first Festival win when combining on Foxhunter Chase favourite Hazel Hill.

Having tracked leader Road To Rome, the 11-year-old loomed alongside in the home straight and pulled clear to claim his 15th success in his last 16 races.

Edwards said: “It’s absolutely unbelievable. I love this horse. We’ve only really tested him this year, we put him in a hunter chase at Warwick with a lot of weight, but he’s done it well.”

O’Neill junior gets in on the act

Jonjo O’Neill Jr, son of legendary trainer Jonjo, rounded off the final day of the Cheltenham Festival with a well-judged ride on the Joseph O’Brien-trained Early Doors to land the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.

Dallas Des Pictons had moved into contention approaching the final fence, but O’Neill Jr kept his mount handy and then delivered the six-year-old at the perfect time to storm up the hill in front.

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