Al Boum Photo bidding to join very exclusive club

Defending champion seeking to emulate likes of Best Mate with back-to-back Gold Cups

Al Boum Photo’s name mightn’t resonate like Best Mate’s but on Friday he could join that former Cheltenham Gold Cup legend as in winning steeplechasing’s ‘Blue Riband’ back-to-back.

It’s a feat accomplished by a tiny elite going back over history to Golden Miller, Cottage Rake and Arkle. Even the more modern day great Kauto Star had his pair of Gold Cup triumphs interrupted by Denman.

The last horse to manage it prior to Best Mate’s 2002-04 hat-trick was L’Escargot almost half a century ago in 1971.

His is a name rarely mentioned in discussions about the greats but even that Irish star could boast a Grand National defeat of Red Rum in his locker too.


Al Boum Photo can't compare to that and at just eight, and only 15 career starts under his belt, it's unfair to criticise him for failing to grab the public imagination yet.

For all that he's the one to have finally broken Willie Mullins's Gold Cup duck, the French-bred with the awkward name is still possibly most readily remembered for that Punchestown horror show in 2018 when Paul Townend inexplicably opted to go round the final fence rather than jump it.

Even on Friday the 13th it seems to be his unlucky profile fate to be pursuing a superb double under the shadow of much wider public health concerns that make the Cheltenham festival’s biggest day a fraught exercise in stoicism or bad taste depending on your point of view.

Last year Al Boum Photo barely raised a ripple in any pre-Gold Cup discussion of a likely winner. A lot of that was due to his having just a single previous run that season around Tramore on New Year’s Day. Now he comes back after an identical campaign as one of the favourites.

Since that latest spin around Tramore – a track as different from Cheltenham as is hard to imagine – other horses have thrown their hat into the ring for the coveted crown, many with more colourful tales than the title holder.

Cheltenham's grandee Nicky Henderson has patiently moulded the giant Santini either into the real deal or, as detractors suspect, a flash but slow boat.

Britain's other top trainer Paul Nicholls believes his dual-King George winner Clan Des Obeaux is a different proposition to the horse that finished 11 lengths behind Al Boum Photo a year ago. He is also part owned by no less than Alex Ferguson.

Seismic outcome

The Presenting Percy story about his reclusive Galway trainer Pat Kelly is widely recognised publicly, almost as much as Delta Work's owner, the Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary, who is chasing a coveted third Gold Cup.

Then there's a potential seismic outcome if Rachael Blackmore can score on Monalee. Even Al Boum Photo's stable companion Kemboy, who exited at the very first fence last year, has a colourful back-story having been banned from racing earlier this season over an ownership dispute.

In comparison, and apart from his own blameless venture into notoriety at Punchestown, Al Boum Photo’s career continues to progress relatively uneventfully.

Unlike the vocal Best Mate team, his wealthy owners, Marie and Joe Donnelly, are resolutely low-profile which, if you have a collection of art, reportedly including works by Picasso and Matisse, is pretty understandable.

Townend has shaken off the legacy of his infamous error, Mullins now has the Gold Cup monkey off his back, and the horse that delivered for him has taken exactly the same under-the-radar route back to Cheltenham to defend the Gold Cup.

It’s a rare thing to say about a Gold Cup winner but there remains a sense of potential about Al Boum Photo. Maybe it’s just due to his sporadic appearances or that at eight he could now be only reaching his peak.

If it is the case though that the best is yet to come then recognition of a rare back to back champion will only be Al Boum Photo’s due.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column