Al Boum Photo: Historic Cheltenham Festival Gold Cup treble on the cards, but why are people not excited?

Will Al Boum Photo join Golden Miller, Arkle, Best Mate, and Cottage Rake to become only the fifth horse to win the Gold Cup on three occasions? And what will the legacy be for the horse that won in 2019 and 2020, but has rarely been seen since? Racing analyst Simon Rowlands takes a look

Paul Townend celebrates after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo
Image: Paul Townend celebrates after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo

The Cheltenham Gold Cup tends to get shared around. It is not that the winners are much of a muchness, but that the race is so tough to win, everyone wants to win it, and even very good horses may get no more than one or two chances to win it in their lifetimes.

In the race's 97-year history, only eight horses have won chasing's blue riband more than once, and just four have won it more than twice. That latter group comprises Golden Miller (five wins from 1932 to 1936 inclusive), the greatest jumper ever in Arkle (1964 to 1966), Best Mate (2002 to 2004), and Cottage Rake (1948 to 1950).

Kauto Star (2007 and 2009), L'Escargot (1970 and 1971) and Easter Hero (1929 and 1930) were the dual winners. Some of the sport's best-staying chasers have failed even to get their names on the race's Roll of Honour, through bad luck, cruel circumstance, or otherwise.

So it is perhaps something of a surprise that we are all not making much more of the fact that Al Boum Photo, who won in 2019 and 2020, is currently clear favourite to make it three in March and to join that most exclusive of clubs.

It is not the horse's fault, but Al Boum Photo could be said to be suffering from Best Mate-itis, in that he has not beaten especially good rivals (in Cheltenham Gold Cup terms), or lesser ones by especially impressive margins, nor has he been seen much other than at Cheltenham.

Best Mate ran just five times between his first and his final Cheltenham Gold Cup wins, and Al Boum Photo looks like managing just four by the time he lines up again in March.

Whereas Best Mate took in two Peterborough Chases, a King George Chase and a Leopardstown Christmas Chase, Al Boum Photo has won twice at lowly Tramore and been beaten at Punchestown in addition to his second Cheltenham win, and that is it. It is difficult for a horse that is seen so infrequently on the main stage to capture the public's hearts.

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There is also that name: every horse should be named as if it will become a star of the future, so who on Earth imagined that a bad play on words for a meaningless phrase was appropriate for this one?! Still, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and Al Boum Photo has risen to become a high-class chaser regardless of that moniker.

History has laid down a marker of how difficult it is to win three Cheltenham Gold Cups - it happens only about once in a human generation - but what about more quantitative measures? What has Al Boum Photo really achieved, and what may he have to achieve to get the job done again?

To gauge this, I turned to Timeform ratings. Timeform has existed for over 70 years and produced Chasers & Hurdlers annuals from 1976 until announcing their discontinuation late last year.

We all have our views on the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary form, but if you want to place that in a longer historical context there is only one place to turn.

2008 to 2011 really were the glory days for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, featuring wins from Denman (Timeform rating 174), Kauto Star's second success over Denman (181), Imperial Commander's (182) defeat of Denman, and, finally, Long Run's (176) victory over Denman and Kauto Star. We may never see an era like it again.

Image: Kauto Star won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009

By contrast, Best Mate's (173 and 174) first two Cheltenham Gold Cup wins were good, if not truly exceptional, and his third one - in which he held Sir Rembrandt by just half a length - was substandard (166).

Al Boum Photo (167 and 168) has achieved less in victory in two Cheltenham Gold Cups than Best Mate did in his first two, and the strength of those races, as judged by the Timeform ratings of the first-three finishers, has been average at best.

On a longer timescale, it might be reasonable to expect Al Boum Photo to have to run a bit better than he has done to date to win a third title, but perhaps not judged on more recent events.

He won by just a neck from Santini last year, with less than two lengths covering the first four. That leaves precious little margin for error.

So, how good is the 2021 version of Al Boum Photo compared to the 2019 and 2020 ones?

There is little to go on, but there is one feature in Al Boum Photo's recent career even more constant than that of him turning up at Cheltenham and winning, and that is doing the same at Tramore on New Year's Day.

He won the Savills New Year's Day Chase there prior to both his Cheltenham Gold Cup wins, and he won that race again recently.

Image: Al Boum Photo has proved to be a high-class chaser, despite a poor name

On the first two occasions, Al Boum Photo gave weight and a six-length beating to Total Recall (rated 163 by Timeform beforehand) and Acapella Bourgeois (153), and this time round he gave less weight but a 19-length beating to Acapella Bourgeois (157 going into the race). His fans might have hoped that Acapella Bourgeois would have run closer than fifth in the Thyestes Chase on his only outing since.

Al Boum Photo's times in the Savills New Year's Day Chase have been 5m 44.6s in 2019, 5m 53.7s in 2020, and 6m 09.9s in 2021, but that has reflected progressively softer ground, while the advertised race distance of 2m 5f 100y can be (and has been) called into question on each of those occasions, not just the last one.

Al Boum Photo did not impress all onlookers for his latest Tramore win, making slightly heavy weather of it at times before asserting from approaching the last. But the clock suggests it was a proper workout, and that he is probably in need of all of the shorter trip these days, even on heavy ground, with a strong gallop, and when the course adds on an indeterminate amount of yardage into the bargain.

I am inclined to think that Al Boum Photo will need to be better than ever at the age of nine to win his third Cheltenham Gold Cup, but that he is a worthy favourite given he has been there and done that and will go there with a tried-and-trusted preparation.

To be honest, I hope so. Another narrow victory over some of the usual suspects is unlikely to secure Al Boum Photo a place in the Pantheon of Greats for those of us who believe in ratings and the like.

A three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner should be a thing to be treasured by the sport and by all of its followers without reservation. It is not often that we even get the chance of it occurring.

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