Victory in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup was a day Willie Mullins was beginning to think would never happen – but after saddling six seconds in the great race, Al Boum Photo finally filled the glaring omission on his glittering CV.
With three of his four runners already out of the race by the end of an incident-packed first circuit, it looked like another Festival was going to pass without the Closutton handler lifting the prize his father, Paddy, claimed with the mighty Dawn Run 33 years ago.
As the field headed out on to their final circuit, defending champion Native River and runner-up Might Bite were at the forefront again with the pair serving it up to each other until the run towards the second-last.
It was at that point that Paul Townend forged the 12-1 shot – who fell at the penultimate fence in last year’s RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase – into the lead, where he was quickly pursued by Bristol De Mai and King George VI Chase hero Clan Des Obeaux.
After opening up a gap between the final two fences, the seven-year-old flew the last as if it was the first, before storming up the hill to hold last year’s third Anibale Fly by two and a half lengths, with a further three and three-quarter lengths to Bristol De Mai in third.
Mullins said: “It used to bug me with the first, second and third one, then the fourth one – I thought maybe it is not to be.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle and I was delighted to win the Grand National with Hedgehunter.
“I’ve had some fantastic owners in my yard, and staff. Racing has been good for me. I’ve not not focused on the Gold Cup and I’ve said if it happens, it happens and if it doesn’t, I’ve had a fantastic time racing.
“We get one chance every year and this year once three had gone before the first circuit, I thought it was another year without a winner in it. Obviously I’m thrilled to win it.
“When Dawn Run won the Gold Cup I didn’t get home for three or four days and it might take a bit longer this time.
“It is nice to have a Gold Cup finally. Between Ascot, here and Melbourne, hitting the bar all the time, at least we have one now and I’m very proud of it.”
Despite Al Boum Photo being limited to just one run in a Listed contest at Tramore on New Year’s Day, Mullins was confident during the closing stages that he would finally see his name engraved on the coveted trophy.
He added: “A lot of people quietly fancied this fellow. He had a slightly unorthodox preparation and we took him to Tramore, but that was how the winter was and it was just different.
“I was just hopeful he would jump the last two well, but Paul looked so relaxed and Paul’s body language on the horse told me he had a little bit up his sleeve.
“The last went terrific and I was looking at the ones behind and bar something extraordinary happening we had it in the bag.”
Asked about future plans for the winner, Mullins said: “I’m not sure it has sunk in yet, we might have to wait a while for that. We normally go to Punchestown with him as that is where we normally go, so that I imagine will be the plan with him.”
As for the winning rider, who on Tuesday had finished second for winning owners the Donnelly family in the Champion Hurdle aboard Melon, it was a moment of redemption, with Al Boum Photo having run out when disputing the lead in a Grade One prize at Punchestown in April.
Townend said: “I can’t believe it. I’m so grateful to Willie and all the owners. I’m in a privileged position to be riding all the horses I am riding. From the time I was an apprentice he has supported me. I’m just so grateful to give him his first Gold Cup.
“I actually got in a beautiful rhythm everywhere. I wasn’t where I wanted to be over the first two fences, but turning down the back he got a couple of good jumps and everything just flowed for me.
“He jumped from fence to fence, he is a real warrior. It is just an unbelievable feeling. We thought staying was his forte and he showed that today.
“I was in a lovely position at every stage and like all races, if it is going to happen it will happen and it has happened today.
“Every single rider who takes out a licence wants to win a Gold Cup and to do it feels unbelievable.”
There was a sad postscript for the winning team, however, as it later emerged the fall at the 10th fence of stablemate Invitation Only had proved to be a fatal one.