He is already the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history – and should Al Boum Photo provide Willie Mullins with a third successive Gold Cup, his name will be added to an even more elite list.
The Clossuton trainer admits he had almost given up his quest of winning a Gold Cup, given he had provided the runner-up on six separate occasions.
But then along came the “unremarkable” Al Boum Photo.
Nothing flash over hurdles, he was a smart novice chaser but fell in the RSA Chase of 2018 when still holding every chance, breaking Ruby Walsh’s leg, before winning the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse a few weeks later.
Before the season was out, though, he became much more famous for a race he did not win at Punchestown – the Growise Champion Novice Chase. With another Grade One at his mercy, Paul Townend was approaching the final fence and mistakenly thought he had heard a shout that it should be bypassed.
In moving to his right to miss the obstacle, he dramatically carried Finian’s Oscar out and crashed into the white rail before the wing of the fence.
It is to the credit of all involved that on Walsh’s retirement there was never any question of another jockey being sought.
“I think it’s a great three-way partnership. There’s Paul, the Donnellys, and the horse. They stuck by Paul after Punchestown and they got their reward,” said Mullins.
Three-time Gold Cup winners are a rare thing. There was Golden Miller in the 1930s who won five, Cottage Rake in the 1940, Arkle – known simply in Ireland as ‘Himself’ – in the 1960s and Henrietta Knight’s Best Mate at the turn of the century.
“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 doing an Arkle,” said Mullins.
“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’.”
Mullins had fired almost everything at the race and previously come up blank. Multiple Grade One winners like Florida Pearl, Sir Des Champs and Djakadam all fell just short, while even Grand National winner Hedgehunter had a go and came second once.
“I think you need a horse that settles. Florida Pearl was probably too forward going, he always wanted to get on with the job, but we were always trying to settle him,” said Mullins
“Martin Molony told me we maybe shouldn’t be trying to settle him and just let him go and jump. I often kick myself wondering if one of the greatest jockeys of all time told you that, should we have done it.
“You learn from it, though. A horse with a more laid-back approach certainly makes it easier to win these races – it’s the same with the Grand National, you need a horse to go around in fourth gear before he needs to go up a gear.
“It’s taken a while, but I think we’re learning!”
Critics of Al Boum Photo point to the fact that Mullins has chosen to only run him once before each of his Gold Cups. But the champion trainer explains that was brought about by circumstance first time around and as it worked he did not want to alter the routine.
“He doesn’t advertise himself during the year, but that is by design. Because he missed Leopardstown (Dublin Racing Festival) two years ago because of the ground he went straight from Tramore and I stuck with that plan,” said Mullins.
“The fact is he could be going for his fourth win at Cheltenham because he fell late on in the RSA with Ruby when he still had a shout so he’s a real Cheltenham horse.
“He obviously has an engine and if he’s able to go back and do it three times then I think he’s able to sit up there with any of them (previous winners).”
As tends to happen in racing, people are already looking forward to next year’s Gold Cup and a possible clash between Al Boum Photo and Monkfish, a red-hot favourite in the novice division this season.
“Al Boum Photo doesn’t stand out, he’s just an ordinary horse in a field. He’ll just sit anywhere you put him in a race,” explained Mullins.
“Monkfish appears to have huge natural ability for instance, he’s not showing off, he’s just doing it as he sees it. But Al Boum Photo keeps it all hidden under the bonnet and only uses it when he’s asked to produce it.
“I’d love it if they took each other on as that would mean they are both sound this time next year!”
Mullins is on the cusp of taking his strongest ever team to Prestbury Park from his County Carlow powerbase, and has favourites for almost half the races.
When asked what he thinks the secret to his success is, he replied: “When I read how many favourites I had I couldn’t believe it. I was as astounded as anyone else. I think recruitment must be the key. I’m always looking all the time, at the moment I’m looking for ones that will be racing for me in two years, we’re always on the lookout.
“That’s how you create the base, and of course you need the people to invest – we’re lucky to have owners like that who want nice horses, it doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s very hard for your younger trainers to come in and expect to compete because they have to build their clients up and then gain trust between each other. It’s a combination of staff, jockeys and everything.
“Look at the people who help me Ruby, David Casey, Patrick (Mullins), Jackie (wife), Dick Dowling (head lad) – they’ve all been here almost as long as I have. That’s a lot of experience in the yard and maybe that is all coming to fruition now.”
With the Gold Cup ticked off and victories in the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle long since secured, Mullins only needs to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase to have the full set of the Festival’s major races.
In Chacun Pour Soi he looks to have the answer this year – but after the same horse was ruled out on the morning of the race 12 months ago he is taking nothing for granted.
“It will be huge for the stable and everyone here to get that – all the championship races at Cheltenham,” Mullins said.
“When we started off the aim was to just have a runner and then after that it was to have a winner. I remember our first with Tourist Attraction, I was delighted but I wasn’t dreaming I’d be in the position I’m in today looking to fill the championship hand. I’d love to do it.”
Of course, this year’s Festival will be completely different taking place in front of almost empty stands and post-Brexit. But Mullins is looking on the bright side.
“All we can do is treat it as normal, we need a team at home, we need a team at Cheltenham. It’s a lot more work and it will cost more, but that’s because of Brexit anyhow. You just have to do what needs to be done,” he said.
“Two years ago when we had to vaccinate all the horses I thought Brexit would be a doddle compared to that and it probably still is, unfortunately it will just cost more.
“Hopefully health issues both sides of the Irish Sea keep getting better.”