CHELTENHAM, United Kingdom (AFP) – Al Boum Photo became the first horse since Best Mate in 2004 to win successive Cheltenham Gold Cups on Friday, part of a memorable four-timer on the day for trainer Willie Mullins.
The Irish raider, under an inspired ride by Paul Townend, held off Santini and Lostintranslation in a thrilling contest that went ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Although there had been raised eyebrows from many that the Festival had gone ahead — with a succession of sporting fixtures from football to rugby being postponed on Friday — Townend and Al Boum Photo returned to thousands of cheering punters packing the stands.
While attendances have been down this week, there were close on 69,000 spectators on Friday, making a total of over 251,000 for the four-day meeting.
Organisers had laid on special hand sanitiser stations and extra public lavatories.
Townend, on realising he had prevailed, looked to the sky, as the 29-year-old also did last year in honour of his mother, who died when he was just 15.
“I never thought I would experience a better feeling than I did last year,” said Townend.
“However, I was wrong, this is even better.
“Willie is a great man because even when I am under pressure in the media he has my back.”
For Mullins, Al Boum Photo will always have a special place in the 63-year-old Irishman’s heart as he delivered his first ever Gold Cup last year — after six runners-up finishes prior to that.
“Fantastic. An absolutely unbelievable day,” Mullins told ITV.
“Some said he was under pressure but Paul does his own thing.
“He probably rides better under a bit of pressure.”
Mullins had endured a quiet start to the four-day meeting, only getting off the mark in the final race of the second day.
However, he will seldom have had a more fortuitous winner than in The Triumph Hurdle, the opening race of Friday’s card.
Jamie Moore looked to be cruising to victory on the favourite Goshen coming to the last with about a 10-length lead and then disaster struck.
His mount stumbled and unshipped him — the roars from the crowd dying to a whisper and a disconsolate Moore hanging his head on the rail before returning to the weighing room.
Ireland’s Burning Victory was the horse to ultimately benefit, beating off another Irish runner Aspire Tower.
Mullins’ 69th career Festival winner — which drew him level with Nicky Henderson on the all-time list — was perhaps one of the least appreciated by the trainer.
“It’s not exactly a hollow victory but it is one I won’t celebrate,” said Mullins.
– ‘She is a brilliant girl’ –
Mullins moved ahead of Henderson in the next as Saint Roi stormed to an impressive victory in the County Hurdle — leading home an Irish 1-2-3-4.
Mullins eulogised over winning jockey Barry Geraghty’s ride, which was his fifth victory of the week and owner JP McManus’s seventh.
“Barry is riding out of his skin at the moment,” Mullins told the BBC.
“Barry executed it fantastically.”
There was no stopping Mullins as he landed the next too, the Novices Hurdle with the resilient Monkfish, who battled back under Townend to prevail.
Mullins’s run was brought to an end in the race after the Gold Cup, The Foxhunters Chase, although it also went to an Irish runner, the 66/1 outsider It Came To Pass.
Maxine O’Sullivan gave the winner — trained by her father Eugene O’Sullivan — a cracking ride to push Mullins’s race favourite Billaway into second.
“Fantastic. I am over the moon,” said Eugene O’Sullivan, whose father trained the winner — ridden by his brother Willie — of the race back in 1991.
“We’ve a great family operation at home.
“Maxine does a lot of work and she is a brilliant girl. She has little faith in herself but she is brilliant.”