Cheltenham Festival 2019: Willie Mullins finally wins Gold Cup
The missing big picture in the collection of a great racehorse trainer has finally been found - Willie Mullins has a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in Al Boum Photo. Stick it in the family album.
Mullins has been a leading force in jump racing for three decades, with champion hurdlers such as Hurricane Fly and Faugheen, winning the Grand National thanks to Hedgehunter and saddling more Cheltenham Festival victors than anyone else.
But when it came to to the blue riband event, the canny Irish champion was horse racing's version of snooker star Jimmy White. Six times a runner-up on the biggest stage.
He finally snapped the run with 12-1 chance Al Boum Photo, giving jockey Paul Townend a golden moment of redemption and the horse's owners their first Festival triumph.
The seven-year-old gelding travelled sweetly and took the lead at the second-last fence.
He galloped on relentlessly in rain-softened ground to defeat the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly, who was second at 22-1 a year after finishing third, with 18-1 chance Bristol De Mai completing the places.
"I had probably resigned myself to the fact I would not win the Gold Cup," said the 62-year-old Mullins, whose stables are at Closutton in County Carlow.
Townend, so long the understudy to Cheltenham's all-time leading jockey Ruby Walsh, made up for a blunder last year in Ireland which cost him a big victory on Al Boum Photo.
A golden legacy for the master Mullins
As the son of trainer Paddy Mullins, who guided the brilliant mare Dawn Run to an unprecedented Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double in the 1980s, the big races at Cheltenham were always going to have a special pull for Mullins.
He had cracked the two-mile Champion Hurdle division and knew how to win the mid-season King George VI Chase over the flat three miles at Kempton, but another quarter of a mile over this undulating Gloucestershire track had proved a step too far.
Florida Pearl in 2000 and Hedgehunter six years later hit the bar before Mullins was runner-up four years running from 2013 with Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam (twice).
He was producing winning machines in other championship contests - Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan among them - but he feared his set-up might just suit speedier types than those best suited to the stamina-sapping trip of the Gold Cup.
To rub salt in the wounds, he was even finishing second in major Flat races - denied by the Queen when her horse Estimate beat Simenon to take the Gold Cup at Ascot, while Max Dynamite was second in the Melbourne Cup as Michelle Payne became the first woman to triumph, on Prince Of Penzance.
You can add in what must have been the bitter blow of losing 60 horses - about a third of his yard, with many going to rival Gordon Elliott - after airline boss Michael O'Leary switched the allegiances of his Gigginstown House Stud in a dispute over training fees.
The 12-time Irish champion Mullins did what all the best trainers do. He regrouped, rebuilt and now has more horses than he had before that row, although he had a feeling of deja vu when three of his four contenders this time fell on the first circuit.
"I thought here we go again," he said.
"I suppose Al Boum Photo was my third or fourth choice but we knew that he would go on the ground and we knew he would stay."
In fact, Willie's son Patrick had identified the horse as a leading Gold Cup contender in a piece last month for the Irish Independent newspaper, although the trainer said that he did not read his son's column.
"Not winning the Gold Cup used to bug me. The first, second, third one and then the fourth - then I was thinking maybe it is not to be," the trainer said.
"I have some fantastic owners, staff, a wonderful wife in Jackie who runs the yard, so racing has been good to me."
Al Boum Photo runs in the black and yellow colours of Marie Donnelly, whose husband John made his money from bookmaking.
It was a first Festival win for the pair, who are serious art collectors, so you can expect a painting or two among the photos.
Turmoil to triumph for Townend
A brain freeze at the Punchestown Festival last April saw Townend veer inexplicably to the right and crash out through the rail at the final fence when leading in the Champion Novice Chase.
Stewards gave him a 21-day ban for dangerous riding and the jockey - who had been deputising for the sidelined Walsh - also forfeited his riding fee.
However, Mullins, Walsh and the Donnellys backed him immediately and he rewarded their faith.
"The owners said just after Punchestown to move on from it and to repay them with a Gold Cup is the best feeling in the world," said Townend, 28.
"I grew up with racing all my life and I remember rushing off the school bus to try to make it home to see the Gold Cup.
"My memories of Cheltenham growing up are really Charlie Swan and Baracouda and the great Best Mate (who completed a Gold Cup hat-trick 15 years ago).
"Racing is full of disappointments and you really have to enjoy the big days, but it's important to keep as level as you can."
The Festival's all-time leading rider Walsh - who broke his leg in a fall on Al Boum Photo at Cheltenham last year - had changed out of his silks and into his suit in time to be an interested bystander at the trophy presentation.
He clapped and smiled as Townend lifted the trophy, despite choosing Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill, who fell, over the winner.
Walsh said how pleased he was for both Mullins and Townend, whose mother died from cancer shortly before he joined Mullins' yard as a 15-year-old.
"I had it down to him and Bellshill, but I just didn't think we'd get the rain we got this morning. That helped him," Walsh said.
"Paul is a great fella to work with and I'm delighted for him and his sisters Caroline and Jodie and their father Tim. They haven't always had it easy and they are a great unit."
Ups and downs of the Festival
There was a bittersweet side to the success, with the winner's stablemate Invitation Only - ridden by the trainer's son Patrick - the third equine fatality of the meeting (from a total of 498 runners) after a heavy fall.
Three was half the number of fatalities at last year's Festival, and several new safety measures were introduced but racing's rulers know they cannot afford complacency on the issue of welfare.
This meeting had an extraordinary backdrop - with equine flu and a forecast windy Wednesday threatening to disrupt matters at some stage.
And the Al Boum Photo story was not the only significant tale to develop during the week.
Bryony Frost's victory on Frodon in the Ryanair Chase was the first Grade One win over jumps for a female jockey in the Festival's history.
Within 24 hours, there had been a second - Rachael Blackmore, currently second to Townend in the Irish title race, riding 50-1 outsider to victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. These girls can.
According to statistics released by the racecourse, there were record crowds at this year's meeting with 71,816 on Friday taking the total attendance to 266,779.
"There have been some tremendous stories that have resonated with the whole nation, which provide a platform that the sport can build on to engage with the wider public, " said British Horseracing Authority chief Nick Rust.
"I have felt immensely proud to be part of our sport."
There's a changing of the guard in jump racing. Veteran rider Noel Fehily announced his retirement this week, and Grand National-winning jockeys and regular Festival victors Walsh, Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty are into the latter stages of their careers.
Walsh, who won the meeting's opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle on Klassical Dream, will be 40 a couple of weeks after this year's Punchestown Festival finishes in May.
The final race of Cheltenham 2019 was won by Early Doors under Jonjo O'Neill junior, who was a newborn when Walsh rode his first Festival winner - Alexander Banquet in the 1998 Champion Bumper.
After six number twos hit the frame, Al Boum Photo meant Mullins was ready for a big celebration, and he did not sound in the mood to disappoint.
"I was here when my dad won with Dawn Run and I didn't get home for two days," he said.
Within hours of the win, there was a 'Gold Cup' section on Mullins' website with photos of the team and the new champion racehorse.
Al Boum Photo. Cheesy grins all round. Picture perfect.