Cheltenham Festival: Irish challengers hold all the aces in the Gold Cup

PPTV presenter James Shortt looks at the Emerald Isle challengers in the Blue Riband on the final day.

Al Boum Photo Gold Cup

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The phrase all things come to those who wait featured in a Mary Montgomerie Currie poem, ‘Tout vient a qui sait attendre’ and this was certainly the case for Willie Mullins when it came to success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having previously saddled the runner-up no fewer than six-times, the Closutton handler was finally rewarded for his patience with not one, but two back-to-back wins with a horse called AL BOUM PHOTO.

The son of Buck’s Boum was imported from France in 2016 and will certainly live long in the memory of the Mullins dynasty. The most remarkable part of his two victories has been his preparation towards Cheltenham and his ability to win and perform fresh at the highest level. The use of the Savills Chase at Tramore has been the most unlikely and unconventional route towards the Gold Cup, but has worked exceptionally well for Mullins and Al Boum Photo.

After his latest win on New Year’s Day, Mullins said “I usually like to do what works, and it has worked before, so hopefully it will work again.” The nine-year-old and defending champion remains the antepost favourite and is bidding to join the greatest names in racing history by winning three consecutive Gold Cups – but can he equal the achievements already set by Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate?

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Willie Mullins is once again heading into Cheltenham with an abundance of talent and one can only imagine the current pressure in planning and preparation with his stable star. The ability of keeping him sound, stepping up his work and getting him pitch perfect at the right time are crucial for his entire team.

This year also brings the added pressure of making sure travel plans are done correctly during post Brexit and current Covid times. As former US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Mullins will leave no stone unturned because he knows getting to the racetrack is only half the battle and even more so this year. Even if all that planning goes smoothly, he’ll then face the emotions of race-day, from nervous excitement to the hope of pure happiness or the acceptance of a gracious defeat.

Willie Mullins Paul Townend

I’ve no doubt Henrietta Knight will be wishing him the best of luck, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a small fly on the wall for any possible chat over the phone between the two – remember it’s been 17-years (2004) since Best Mate’s third win under Jim Culloty.

Having waited patiently in the shadows behind Ruby Walsh at Closutton for many years, Paul Townend has emerged into the light with Al Boum Photo one of his best mates for life. He’s been here before and will be dreaming about a carbon copy hold up ride, which sees him gradually come into the race before finding plenty up the hill for a third straight win.

The Donnelly family might have another superstar in Shishkin in the Arkle, but it’s the Gold Cup at 15:05 on Friday 19th March which matters most for them over the four days of Cheltenham 2021.

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Al Boum Photo Gold Cup - Non Runner Money Back

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The home challenge has plenty in opposition with Royale Pagaille still a Gold Cup possible for Venetia Williams and Rich and Susannah Ricci. What irony it would be for the Mullins team if the owner which helped them expand the Closutton operation to its current heights was to spoil the Al Boum Photo party.

The seven-year-old has improved vastly this season with success at Kempton over Christmas and a runaway victory in the Peter Marsh at Haydock in January. The decision is clearly between a run here or take in National Hunt Chase, because Monkfish, also owned by Ricci is the standout contender for the former RSA (now Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase).

Frodon could give Bryony Frost a fairytale success following glory in the King George over Christmas, while 2018 winner Native River is back in contention after his Cotswold Chase win at Sandown.

However, A Plus Tard looks the biggest danger for me and has an excellent chance of keeping the Gold Cup on Irish soil for Henry de Bromhead. The son of Kapgarde is only a seven-year-old and has gained a vast amount of experience over fences in his 10 career starts.

He made a name for himself early in his career when winning at the Festival in 2019 before dropping to the minimum trip later that season. He got the better of current Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite, Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown that Christmas before stepping up in trip to finish third and ahead of Frodon in the Ryanair last year. A late spring and summer break saw him return once again over 2m last November before de Bromhead made a bold decision to run in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

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A Plus Tard Gold Cup - Non Runner Money Back

The decision to take a chance at 3m and step-up in trip proved fruitful for connections with jockey Darragh O’Keeffe staying on superbly to see off Kemboy, Melon and Allaho close home. He looks a genuine player for Gold Cup success with Kemboy, perhaps Stayers Hurdle bound boosting the form with victory in the Irish Gold Cup. The decision to bypass that race and head straight for Cheltenham with a fresh horse is another fine piece of race planning by de Bromhead and team.

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Kemboy Gold Cup - Non Runner Money Back

Minella Indo also comes from the Henry de Bromhead camp and it could be argued that the bubble has burst with him having disappointed behind Kemboy at Leopardstown.

Elsewhere, Allaho looks a better possibility for the Ryanair and would be outclassed over this trip, while Melon and Samcro are two other Irish runners who could be similarly suited by bypassing this race. Burrows Saint, Battleoverdoyn and Magic Of Light remain entered but will be focusing on Aintree, while Shattered Love looks poised to race in the newly formed Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase.

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Minella Indo Gold Cup - Non Runner Money Back

The hard work, pure-class and contribution that Willie Mullins has put into National Hunt racing makes him more than worthy of becoming a three-time Gold Cup winning trainer. A racing nation wants to see Al Boum Photo complete the hat-trick and like Best Mate previously, he certainly has the ability and class to succeed at the age of nine.

It certainly won’t be easy, but my heart wants him to deliver for the Mullins team with A Plus Tard on hand as compensation for Ireland and Henry de Bromhead if all goes wrong.

*Paddy will be all over your telly box throughout the Cheltenham Festival sponsoring ITV’s live coverage from Prestbury Park – and you can get free and exclusive tipping columns EVERY DAY from Ruby Walsh, Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald here on PP News.

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