Cheltenham Gold Cup: Mullins Doing Everything Right with Al Boum Photo

As we get closer to the Cheltenham Festival, the biggest story will inevitably be Al Boum Photo's attempt to secure a third consecutive Gold Cup triumph. The 9-year-old, trained by Willie Mullins, is the clear favourite to win on March 19th, where a victory will emulate the likes of triple Gold Cup winner, Best Mate, and go down as one of the great feats of modern jumps racing.

Nevertheless, there is a sense that Al Boum Photo is hurtling towards his third Gold Cup, not because he is an all-time great in tremendous form, but because he is the least-worst option. By that we don't mean any disrespect to Al Boum Photo – to win two Gold Cups makes him a great in everyone's eyes. It is a simple fact that the competition he faces has been, at best, erratic over the last year, and, in some cases, terrible.

Al Boum Photo the Clear Favourite

Now, does that mean Al Boum Photo is a shoo-in to win the Gold Cup? Bookmakers have priced him at 3/1, with the rest of the field coming in at 8/1 or above. That's quite a margin of daylight in a race that is notoriously difficult to call, and much more so when it's still weeks until Gold Cup Day. Al Boum Photo has had one race – and one win – since last year's Gold Cup triumph. That came in the Savill's New Year's Day Chase at Tramore, which Al Boum Photo won handily. But it wasn't the kind of test of mettle that punters like to see. In short, we learnt nothing about Al Boum Photo in that race.

Nonetheless, you can see why bookmakers have put Al Boum Photo out on his own – almost every other horse in the race has had some sort of blot on their copybook in the last year. The second-favourite, Minella Indo (8/1), for example, fell in his last outing at Leopardstown. Santini (9/1), who is the third-favourite, hasn't had a win since the Cotswold Chase in January last year.

But that really doesn't mean Al Boum Photo will have it all his own way. As rightly pointed out in MBet's blog for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Santini actually had a decent 2020. Alongside that Cotswold Chase win, he finished second to Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, and he was only a length behind Lake View Lad in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December. The main concern was a poor showing in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.

Santini has the attributes of a Gold Cup winner

Santini, however, is the kind of horse that can beat anyone on his day. The key for trainer Nicky Henderson is that day being Gold Cup Day at Cheltenham. Several others who will line up for the bog race also share that characteristic, and nobody would be truly surprised if it is someone like Minella Indo, Champ or A Plus Tard that we see in the Winners' Enclosure.

However, you have to say that trainer Willie Mullins has played a blinder with Al Boum Photo. The horse is lightly raced (just six races across the last two years), and he will come into the Gold Cup fresher than any of his rivals. It’s almost like a boxer carefully picking their opponents – the right time, the right fight. But this is the Gold Cup, and nothing is decided on paper. Al Boum Photo might look like a logical three-time winner, but some very good horses might have something to say about that.