Willie Mullins, the Festival’s most successful ever trainer, finally ended his Cheltenham Gold Cup hoodoo — but not with the horse he expected, as 12-1 shot Al Boum Photo bounded to victory.
Strong-finishing Anibale Fly claimed second to go with his third last year. Bristol De Mai was a further four lengths back in third.
After finishing runner-up six times, including when On His Own was beaten a short-head by Lord Windermere in 2014, Mullins said he had become resigned to not winning the race his late father Paddy memorably landed in 1986 with the mare Dawn Run.
Al Boum Photo finished ahead of Anibale Fly and Bristol De Mai to clinch the Gold Cup
He ran four of the 16-strong field on Friday but by half-way thought his Gold Cup luck was still out.
Kemboy unseated his nephew David Mullins at the first fence, Ruby Walsh pulled up Bellshill after the eighth fence following a sequence of jumping errors and, sadly, Invitation Only, ridden by his son Patrick, fell fatally at the 10th fence.
But Al Boum Photo exceeded expectations under Paul Townend to lead around the home turn and fend off all challengers.
Mullins, who claimed his fourth winner at the meeting and 65th at the Festival, said: ‘I actually thought Bellshill would take a lot of beating, but Ruby was never happy with him.
‘Al Boum Photo was probably three or four in the pecking order. But by the top of the hill first time round, I think he was No 1. It was extraordinary the other three were gone by the time they came to the second-last, first time round.
‘At the top of the hill, when he wanted a jump, he got it and I thought he had plenty left in the tank, although I didn’t know how much.
‘Going to the second last, Paul said, “It’s time to go!”’
Al Boum Photo comfortably won the Gold Cup to give Willie Mullins his first victory
Mullins came to Cheltenham this season with lower expectations than usual. He even wondered whether the way he trained horses was a reason he had not won the most prestigious steeplechase in the calendar.
Mullins added: ‘The earlier ones were probably disappointing but you get used to it. I had resigned myself to never winning a Gold Cup, so I was not going to obsess about it and become too disappointed.
‘Sometimes you train certain types of horses a certain way. I thought maybe my way wasn’t a Gold Cup way, even though we had got so close.’
For 28-year-old Townend, who is understudy to Walsh at the Mullins stable but still gets enough opportunities to be on the verge of winning a second Irish jockeys’ championship, there was redemption. Last season he was on the verge of winning a Punchestown Grade One novice chase when steering his mount around the final fence in the belief he had heard a call from behind to not jump it.
Despite that, Mullins and Al Boum Photo’s owners, Joe Donnelly and his wife Marie, stood by the jockey.
Townend, who won the Arkle Novices’ Chase on Tuesday on Mullins’ Duc Des Genievres but had never finished closer than fifth in seven previous Gold Cups, said: ‘My body is shaking, I just can’t believe it. I am so grateful to Willie and the owners for sticking by me.’
Last year’s winner Native River finished fourth. He was pushed along early on by jockey Richard Johnson and took a circuit to assume his front-running position. Trainer Colin Tizzard suggested he might fit blinkers in future.
Presenting Percy, the big Irish hope before the race who was sent off 100-30 favourite, finished eighth. He was later reported to be lame on his right hind leg and jockey Davy Russell said his saddle had slipped after a mid-race mistake.
When Dawn Run landed the Gold Cup, Willie Mullins was his work rider. Appropriately, on the winner’s podium was his 90-year-old mother Maureen, who has not missed a Festival in 63 years. She said: ‘That means everything. It is a great thing for the whole family. We’ve all been waiting for it.’
The trip home for the Mullins clan could be slow, though. Willie joked: ‘When Dawn Run won I did not get home for three or four days. It might take longer this time!’
ljust 24 hours after Bryony Frost became the first female rider to land a Grade One race over jumps, Ireland’s Rachael Blackmore also did it, winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on 50-1 shot Minella Indo.
It was Blackmore’s second win of the meeting and, with Lizzie Kelly also successful, the four female-ridden winners equalled last year’s best tally for the meeting.