18 March 2021
By Roger Jones
During four fabulous days each year, the Cheltenham Festival showcases everything that’s great about the National Hunt racing scene. In fact, it would be easy to mistake the Cotswold spa town for an Irish colony, as the best jockeys and trainers from the emerald isle get ready to compete for the biggest prizes.
This year, the 2021 Cheltenham Festival has the potential to produce something really special, especially in the headline race on the final day. Always a favourite amongst British and Irish race aficionados, the Gold Cup is the one everybody wants to win. For any jockey or trainer, winning that one race can be the highlight of their careers.
For a certain dynamic trio of horse, jockey, and trainer, this could be a landmark year. Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Cork native Paul Townend, 9-year-old dark bay gelding Al Boum Photo will be aiming for a third consecutive Gold Cup victory. All the odds on the 2021 Cheltenham Festival point towards this being a genuine possibility.
— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 13, 2021
Should the trio manage to be first past the post on Friday, they will secure the first Gold Cup hat-trick since 2004. That was when Best Mate achieved a similar hat-trick having already won in 2002 and 2003, ridden by Jim Culloty and trained by Henrietta Knight. Since then, three consecutive Gold Cup triumphs has remained agonizingly just out of reach.
Legendary former jockey Ruby Walsh knows the difficulty of this challenge. The iconic Irishman rode Kauto Star to success in 2007, then after the duo finished second by seven lengths in 2008 behind Denman, they won the Gold Cup again in 2009. Likewise, Denman with Sam Thomas in the saddle was unable to repeat that 2008 success, finishing second for the next three years in a row.
Willie Mullins is by no means a stranger to enjoying success at the Cheltenham Festival, and neither is Paul Townend. If they can coax Al Boum Photo past the finishing post in first this year, it will truly become one of the greatest National Hunt accomplishments of all time. This remarkable horse would also achieve a mythical status amongst fans.
Henrietta Knight poses with the statue of Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Best Mate pic.twitter.com/kebVjFvHD6
— Racing Post (@RacingPost) March 17, 2017
Winning three consecutive Gold Cup events is a rare and monumental feat. Doing so would place Al Boum Photo amongst an exclusive parade of legendary horses. They include Best Mate as the first in the 21st century and, of course, the remarkable Arkle in the mid-1960’s. Prior to that, Cork-trained Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup three times in a row between 1948 and 1950.
Focusing on the event this year, Paul Townend made a positive start to his bid to become the top jockey at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival. The jockey from Cork rode Appreciate It to victory on the opening day, winning the Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He also finished second in three other races, astride horses trained by Willie Mullins.
No matter how many personal plaudits Townend receives or how many other races are won, there’s no doubting the highest priority will be the big one, triumphing in the Gold Cup on Friday. If he can do that in the saddle of Al Boum Photo, not only will the whole of Ireland be celebrating, the whole of racing will be toasting their success.