Having finally crossed that threshold a year ago convention dictated that a second must follow hard upon the 2019 triumph. And so Al Boum Photo duly entered the winners’ enclosure as the first since Best Mate in 2003 to win back to back, after which Mullins revealed his discovery of the superfood that fuelled his victory in the festival showpiece.
“One night about five weeks ago I went out to the barn and here he was, loose. There was a bag of carrots outside the stable and he was just munching away. We put him back in, gave him a few extra carrots and he was fine. We had to put a chain on him from then on. He’s just a cool character, got out into the carrots and he was happy.”
It is not untypical of Mullins to divert and to dissemble. Anything to deflect the credit that is his due for another demonstration of his intuitive grasp of a horse. Al Boum Photo made it four out of four from the start of play, that’s four winners from a combined field of 70 horses. That does not happen by luck alone. The streak took Mullins, below, to seven winners for the week and 72 all told, both unsurpassed at the point Al Boum Photo edged Santini in yet another pulsating slugfest up the slope.
A sense of the unreal attended this festival from the off. The coronavirus black hole claiming big-ticket sport across the world had no purchase in the Cotswolds. The final day of the festival was framed by blue skies and warmed by a gentle zephyr that mocked the concerns swirling without.
You almost felt guilty engaging in the drama, a wicked extravagance on a day when one by one others fell to the lockdown. All British football gone, the Australian Grand Prix gone and a deal of the F1 season with it, golf’s Players Championship gone with three rounds remaining, the Masters Tournament gone. Yet here we were roaring on winners. Perhaps Cheltenham will be seen as a turning point in our thinking, a contributor to the shift towards herd immunisation that will eventually run C-19 out of our lives. Thus the parade ring was not so much sapien’s mad last stand but racing’s serendipitous answer to mutating bacteria with bad intentions.
Wherever your sympathies lie, it was impossible not to warm to winning jockey Paul Townend in his moment of exaltation. The end of the week bore an inverse relation to the start when in the white heat of disappointment he was held partly responsible for the narrow failure of Benie Des Dieux in Tuesday’s Mares’ Hurdle duel with Honeysuckle, allowing the latter to dive inside and steal decisive yards.
Four days later Townend returned his second Gold Cup, one of three wins on the final afternoon to top the jockeys’ table with five winners and justify the faith placed in him by Mullins when installing him as replacement for Ruby Walsh at his Closesutton yard.
“It’s fantastic. An absolutely unbelievable day,” Mullins said. “Paul does his own thing and probably rides better under a little bit of pressure. It’s really, really good for him. To take over from someone like Ruby Walsh, Paul has come and stamped his authority on his season in Ireland riding for our yard. It is a tough act to follow, but he is Paul Townend, stable jockey to Willie Mullins, and he is top class.”
The outcome sets the narrative for next year and the push to enter Best Mate territory with a Gold Cup hat-trick. Fancy that, Paul? “This is huge. This is the main stage. Before this I was having a brilliant day, but this is the icing on the cake. The Gold Cup is the Gold Cup, and sure, we’ll wait 12 months for another one again.”