Prospect of Al Boum Photo claiming Gold Cup hat-trick unlikely to rattle Donnelly

Racing just one area of shrewd businessman’s life in which he has enjoyed success

Al Boum Photo is favourite to complete a rare Cheltenham Gold Cup hat-trick on Friday, a scenario that once upon a time would have had his owner Joe Donnelly totting the odds on him to lose.

Nowadays, Donnelly (74) is a renowned if publicity-shy businessman with a fortune that has been estimated at close to €200 million.

At the root of it, however, is the Cork man’s previous career as one of the biggest bookmakers in the Irish betting ring during the 1980s and 1990s where his policy was always to “get” the favourite.

“He was an odds bookmaker, not a particularly knowledgeable racing fan. He didn’t study form. He was of the view that ‘I’m a bookmaker and I’m going to stand the favourite’.

“He would back the horse you didn’t fancy and take the better odds on that – old-fashioned bookmaking,” says a former colleague and friend.

Keeping the odds in his favour meant it was hardly coincidence Donnelly sold his betting interests for a reported €27 million in 2002 – just before the business got transformed by technology.

By then he had established a growing property empire that crucially was international in focus. It meant being spared the worst of the economic crash.

Backing his own judgment, and having it vindicated, has also underpinned the assembly of an enviable art collection Donnelly and his wife Marie have assembled over decades.

‘Very shrewd man’

It features works by Matisse and Picasso, and the couple are globally regarded as serious and shrewd collectors.

“He was a very shrewd man because when he made a few pounds he invested it in art and property. He is an expert in 20th century art and early 20th century furniture.

“I suspect it came from the desire to invest money. Any business Joe goes into, he goes to who he’s told is the number one in the world and says to them, I want to get into this,” a friend said.

When he was standing in the ring Donnelly was prominent in racing politics. He served as chairman of the bookmakers' association and twice served on the board of the Irish Horseracing Authority, the precursor of Horse Racing Ireland.

He also owned a number of horses in training, mostly on the flat with trainers Kevin Prendergast and Tony Redmond. They carried the yellow and black colours now sported by Al Boum Photo.

However, once his bookmaking interests were sold he was rarely seen again in racing circles, instead more likely to be seen at art events in Paris or New York.

Both he and his wife have served on the International Council of the Tate Gallery and on the international board of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

It’s a very different environment to the raucous rough and tumble of the racecourse but five years ago the couple returned to racing.

The late Mick O'Toole, a classic and Cheltenham-winning trainer, was the conduit to Willie Mullins who got charged with the task of finding a Gold Cup winner.

It has paid off in style in Al Boum Photo, bought after just one run in France, and now on the verge of becoming just the fifth horse to complete a hat-trick in steeplechasing's "Blue Riband".

If it’s an awesome prospect to many, the chance of such history is unlikely to rattle Donnelly.

Pursuing excellence

“I told him when Al Boum Photo was going for the Gold Cup it was the pinnacle. He didn’t know that, didn’t really appreciate how big the race is.

“He would have an ordinary man in the street view of racing rather than an expert’s view, even though he’s been in it all his life.

“He would know the big races but he wouldn’t be particularly involved in the history or importance of these things.

“He loves following his own horses and it gives him an interest. But he wouldn’t necessarily follow, say, Honeysuckle on Tuesday,” his former colleague said.

Donnelly's habit of going to the best and pursuing excellence also saw him put horses into training with Britain's top trainer, Nicky Henderson.

He supplied Shishkin to win the Arkle on Tuesday, more evidence of judgment keeping the odds in his favour.

It’s ironic then Al Boum Photo has been labelled “Ordinary Joe” by Mullins, due to the horse’s unassuming approach to life away from the track.

Such a tag hardly seems to fit his owner.