Which was Willie Mullins’ first Cheltenham Festival winner?

Willie Mullins, who has won the Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championship every season since 2008/09, has also been no stranger to the winners’ enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. Indeed, the County Carlow handler is the most successful trainer in the history of the March showpiece meeting, with 72 winners, and has been crowned leading trainer seven times.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase is a notable omission from Mullins’ CV but, of the other three main ‘championship’ races, he has won the Champion Hurdle four times, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice and, after finishing runner-up six times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, courtesy of Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020. Everyone needs to start somewhere, of course, and in Willie Mulllins’ case his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival was Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1995. Ridden by Mark Dwyer, the 25/1 chance led on the run-in and stayed on well to beat Ventana Canyon, trained by Edward O’Grady and ridden by Charlie Swan, by two lengths.

Will Santini run in the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup?

A lightly-raced eight-year-old, trained by Nicky Henderson, Santini has the unenviable record of having run at the Cheltenham Festival three years running and been beaten, albeit narrowly, on all three occasions. However, to his credit, all three defeats have come in Grade One contests; in 2019, Santini finished third, beaten four-and-a-half lengths, in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, in 2019, he finished second, beaten half-a-length, in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase and, in 2020, finished second, beaten a neck, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Although not quite able to get on terms with defending champion Al Boum Photo in the final half-a-furlong or so of the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup, it is worth remembering that Santini has only made six starts over regulation fences, so remains open to significant improvement as a steeplechaser. Obviously, a case can be made for any of the first three and, possibly, the first four or five, home in the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup, not to mention RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase winner, Champ, but the 7/1 currently available ante post about Santini for the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup seems fair enough. Cut in the ground appears to be a pre-requisite for the Milan gelding but, granted his favoured underfoot conditions, he appears likely to attempt to make amends for his agonising defeat. In the 2020 renewal, he closed steadily on the eventual winner all the way from the final fence to the winning post and, within ten or twenty yards, was in front.

Can Al Boum Photo win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2021?

In March, 2019, Al Boum Photo had the distinction of becoming the first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for County Carlow trainer Willie Mullins, who had previously saddled the runner-up in the ‘Blue Riband’ event on no fewer than six times. Only the third-least fancied of four Mullins-trained runners, at 12/1, on that occasion, Al Boum Photo stayed on strongly under Paul Townend to win by two-and-a-half lengths. Al Boum Photo returned to Cheltenham, as defending champion, in 2020 and, although sent off clear favourite, at 100/30, had to dig deep to fend off Santini and Lostintranslation by a neck and one-and-a-quarter lengths.

Obviously, whether or not Al Boum Photo can join the likes of Golden Miller, Arkle and Best Mate by winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years running depends, in large part, on his well-being by the time March 19, 2021, rolls around. However, provided he is fit and well, as a lightly-raced nine-year-old, he must have every chance of defending his title for a second time. Of course, aside from Santini and Lostintranslation, Al Boum Photo could face several other progressive, young steeplechasers, including Champ and Minella Indo, who finished first and second in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, and the returning Topofthegame, winner of the same race in 2019. Whether the 6/1 currently on offer ante post represents value is debatable, but, as a dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner already, Al Boum Photo needs to be taken very seriously indeed.

Which are the biggest outsiders to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup?

Unlike, say, the Grand National, which has been a handicap for most of its existence, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is a conditions, or weight-for-age, steeplechase. Horses aged six years and upwards carry 11st 10lb, five-year-olds carry 11st 8lb and mares receive a 7lb allowance so, as might be expected, the ‘Blue Riband’ event of the British National Hunt calendar is rarely won by an outsider.

Far and away the biggest outsider to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup since it was first run, as a steeplechase, in 1924, was Norton’s Coin, who defied odds of 100/1 when defeating Toby Tobias and Desert Orchid by three-quarters of a length and four lengths in 1990. Owned and trained by Sirrell Griffiths, a dairy farmer and permit-holder based in Nantgaredig in Carmarthenshire, South West Wales, Norton’s Coin was described, justifiably, as the ‘Shock of the Century’ on the front page of the ‘Racing Post’ the following day.

Indeed, in the entire history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup no other horse has won at odds longer than 33/1; the two 33/1 winners were Gay Donald, trained by Jim Ford, in 1955 and L’Escargot, trained by Dan Moore, in 1970. Cool Ground, trained by Toby Balding, prevailed at odds of 25/1 in 1992, as Cool Dawn, trained by Robert Alner, in 1998, but the only other winners that could be classified as ‘outsiders’ were the 20/1 winners Mr. Mulligan in 1997 and Lord Windermere in 2014.

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