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Dublin: 0°C Sunday 6 December 2020

If it ain't broke: Al Boum Photo setting out Gold Cup stall

‘History tells you that it’s not easy to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup more than once,’ writes Donn McClean.

YOU COULDN’T HAVE hoped for a better performance from Al Boum Photo than the one he put up at Tramore on Wednesday.

It was as you were last year: seasonal debut, New Year’s Day, Tramore, Savills Chase in the bag.

It was different this year, of course. Al Boum Photo wasn’t the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup title-holder in 2019, for starters. There is a weight of expectation that goes with the title. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

2019-cheltenham-festival-gold-cup-day-cheltenham-racecourse Paul Townend celebrates following Al Boum Photo's victory in last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup. Source: Paul Harding

It wasn’t surprising to learn afterwards that trainer Willie Mullins’ over-riding feeling was one of relief. He said that he was more nervous watching the race than he had been during last year’s Gold Cup.

It was all very straightforward though for Marie Donnelly’s horse. He travelled well for Paul Townend, he jumped well, he moved to the front at the fifth-last fence, and he won easily. Job done.

Bookmakers took the opportunity to shorten his Cheltenham Gold Cup odds from 13/2 and 7/1 to 5/1 and 6/1.

History tells you that it’s not easy to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup more than once. Best Mate and Kauto Star are the only two horses to achieve that feat since L’Escargot won the race in 1970 and 1971, and Kauto Star’s two wins were not back-to-back.

In the same period of time, 13 horses have won the King George more than once, with 11 winning back-to-back renewals. That is not a coincidence.

The Gold Cup is unforgiving and unrelenting. Three miles and two and a half furlongs at the highest level and up the hill. To win it, you have to dig deep. To win it again, you have to dig deep again. It takes a special horse to do that.

Kauto Star was a special horse. He was an extraordinary National Hunt racehorse, who had the speed to win the Tingle Creek Chase over two miles (twice), the pace to win the King George over three miles (five times) and the stamina to win the Gold Cup over three and a quarter miles (twice).

Best Mate was obviously a top-class racehorse too, but the manner in which he was campaigned by Henrietta Knight undoubtedly contributed to his longevity.

During the season before he won his second Gold Cup, he raced just twice. He won the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon the previous November, and he won the King George that December. Same in 2004, before he won his third Gold Cup. He raced just twice during that campaign too, he finished second in the Peterborough Chase and he won the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown.

It was interesting to listen to Willie Mullins muse about Al Boum Photo’s potential campaign at the start of the season, that they might start off in the Savills Chase at Tramore, as they did last year. It worked last year, was his reasoning.

al-boum-2019-cheltenham-gold-cup-winners-parade Willie Mullins with Al Boum Photo. Source: Niall Carson

And it was interesting that he said after Wednesday’s race that he could go straight to Cheltenham now without another race, as he did last year. It was an ultra-light campaign last year.

Admittedly, he was an intended runner in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February last year, he was scratched on the day because of the ground. He may have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year anyway even if he had run in the Irish Gold Cup, but he may not have.

So it makes sense to go with an identical campaign this term. Skip the Irish Gold Cup. The one that worked last year. You have to think that that’s the campaign that would maximise Al Boum Photo’s chance of winning another Cheltenham Gold Cup.

If it ain’t broke.

The Gold Cup picture is taking shape. Kemboy’s return in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on Saturday was more than satisfactory. He didn’t win, but he finished a close-up fourth, and he travelled well through his race until he appeared to tire in the home straight.

Willie Mullins’ horse famously beat Al Boum Photo in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April – Ruby Walsh’s last ride – but, unlike his stable companion, he is not proven at Cheltenham.

He has run there three times, he unseated at the first fence in the Gold Cup last March, he finished fourth behind Shattered Love in the JLT Chase in 2018, and he finished fifth behind Willoughby Court in the Neptune Hurdle in 2017. He is zero for three at the Cheltenham Festival.

Santini was not impressive in winning on his seasonal return at Sandown. Admittedly, Cheltenham should suit him much better, but he is going to have to step forward significantly from that if he is going to be a player in the Gold Cup.

Lostinstranslation was obviously disappointing in the King George. He could leave that run behind him, he looked good in winning the Betfair Chase on his previous run, but he is going to have to.

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Clan Des Obeaux is the King George winner so, by definition, he has to come into Gold Cup calculations. He looked very good in winning the King George again this year. But he is a pacey horse who is dynamite at Kempton and who was trained to the minute by Paul Nicholls for the King George.

kempton-winter-festival-day-one-kempton-park-racecourse Clan Des Obeaux has to come into Gold Cup calculations. Source: Steven Paston

The best two runs of Clan Des Obeaux’s life have been at Kempton, in his two King Georges, and his next best was at Ascot, another right-handed track, when he won the Denman Chase last February.

He could only finish fifth in last year’s Gold Cup, and he hasn’t won yet in five attempts at Cheltenham. On his only other run at the Cheltenham Festival, he finished sixth in Ivanovich Gorbatov’s Triumph Hurdle in 2016.

By contrast, we know that Delta Work goes well at the track and under Cheltenham Festival conditions. Gordon Elliott’s horse won the Pertemps Final there in 2018 as a whipper-snapper five-year-old, and he finished a close-up third behind Topofthegame and Santini in the RSA Chase there last March when he didn’t have an ideal run through the race.

He was disappointing on his debut this season at Down Royal, but there were excuses that day, and he is never at his best on his seasonal debut anyway. He put that run behind him too when he won the Savills Chase at Leopardstown last Saturday.

His jumping was much better at Leopardstown than it had been at Down Royal and, while he could have been even better had the early pace been stronger, he stayed on strongly from the final fence to get up and win by a head.

The Gigginstown House horse has only just turned seven, and that was just his seventh chase, so he has the potential to improve again between now and Cheltenham in March.

He is classy and he is tough, the test that the Gold Cup presents should suit him ideally, and he could emerge as the most significant threat to Al Boum Photo’s bid for back-to-back wins.

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About the author:

Donn McClean

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