By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Al Boum Photo was the star attraction on New Year’s Day, with Cheltenham and Exeter both abandoned due to the weather, and the reigning Gold Cup winner started 2021 with a bang.
The 2:37 from Tramore (Savills New Year’s Day Chase (Grade 3)) was ran at a seemingly fast pace with Djingle taking them along until Acapella Bourgeois took up the lead for the final circuit, assuring it was a good test. Al Boum Photo went into first place as they jumped the last and galloped nineteen lengths clear, eased down. It was an ideal prep race for a Gold Cup contender – jumped well, travelled well (if a little lazily), cruised to victory and had a good blow afterwards.
With Al Boum Photo, opinions vary. Since the dramatic incident at the 2018 Punchestown Festival, this horse has barely put a hoof wrong – he hasn’t made many appearances on a racecourse, though, and that is the reason for Al Boum Photo’s mixed reputation (and the lack of photos in this article which, given his name, is an irony that is not lost on me!).
Over the past two seasons, Willie Mullins has developed a route, now tried and tested, that gets Al Boum Photo to the Gold Cup at his absolute peak fitness. His season consists of Tramore, Cheltenham and Punchestown. That is just three races in a season.
Now, I am not going to pretend I know the reasoning behind the training and placement of Al Boum Photo – how easy he is to get race-ready; how easy it is to keep him sound; how he comes out of races; how long it takes for him to recover from each race or what the horse’s character is like. That is the trainer’s area of expertise. Willie and Patrick Mullins, who have been in flying form, will know each of those things and they will act accordingly.
People who follow horse racing occasionally seem to forget that horses aren’t machines. (This could be argued as a result of the binding tie between racing and gambling.) These horses have their own health and personalities that influence how frequently they race.
I suppose you could argue that Tramore is the safe option. They know he won’t face top-class horses and will have a good, positive outing. They’ll scoop €18,000 for the win. It would’ve been nice to have seen Al Boum Photo in the Savills Chase. It is the kind of race you expect the Gold Cup winner to take part in, but why give a horse a hard race before their target and risk injury or them not being in top form for next time? The Cheltenham Gold Cup has a prize fund to the winner of over £150,000 more than both the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup combined. Looking at that, I think we can understand why the Cheltenham Gold Cup is his target.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a unique test. The horses must stay the trip thoroughly and jump well enough to keep them in contention. They need luck and a will to win that can get them up the hill. It takes an awful lot out of a horse so they need to be at their absolute best on raceday.
This leads to the controversial debate of whether trainers should target the Cheltenham Festival as much as they do. The Cheltenham Festival is the biggest week in the sport and, as a result, where the most lucrative prize money is. Each race holds so much prestige and everyone wants a Cheltenham Festival winner – even if that means avoiding other suitable races. These suitable races will always have smaller purses so the attraction is just not there. A trainer can keep a horse at home, safe, and prime him on the gallops to have a better chance of winning the big prizes.
This is disappointing for some racing fans. It’s only natural that fans want to see as much of the Gold Cup winner as possible. He is a sublime racehorse and always puts in excellent performances so it is easy, and understandable, to become greedy and want more, especially as there are plenty of good races in the National Hunt Calendar.
In a way, the connections of a high-profile racehorse have a responsibility to the sport’s fans and this must be a difficult balancing act. First and foremost, their focus should be on the horse and the owners. In addition, fans and supporters of the sport have expectations of what they would like to see from the horse and I think that is fair. Obviously, the owner pays the bills and the trainer knows what is best for their horse. This, by no means, should cut off discussions like this.
Racing fans need to appreciate the skill and knowledge of Willie Mullins. He sees Al Boum Photo every day and knows exactly what he needs. The team want to win three Gold Cups. He went to Tramore for what was a really solid, encouraging preparation. It is the tried and tested route – they know that the two miles five and a half furlongs around Tramore gets him spot on for the big day.
Al Boum Photo’s achievements are incredible. Kauto Star won two Gold Cups as well, yet Al Boum Photo is by no means judged in the same bracket as him. This is probably because he doesn’t have an illustrious CV away from that race. It is sad as he doesn’t get the credit and attention he deserves now and he is unlikely to when people look back on his career in years to come. I don’t think we can call him a ‘People’s Horse’ yet. If you approached someone on the street and asked them to name a racehorse, I would be shocked if more than a handful said, “Al Boum Photo”.
However, I think he still has a multitude of great days ahead of him. He turns nine this year with a strong chance of glory in March. He is trained by a complete master and I do not believe he has reached his ceiling yet. Whilst quite a few of the novice chasers gracing the track this season look like Gold Cup winners in the making, we could see him win or at least contest three more Gold Cups.
Now, we should respect the decisions of Mullins and the Donnellys and wait with eager anticipation for that Friday in March when Al Boum Photo looks to equal Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate with three victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.