Of the main ‘championship’ races run at the Cheltenham Festival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was established in 1924, three years before the Champion Hurdle, is the oldest. However, the oldest race still run at the Cheltenham Festival is the Grand Annual Chase; since 2005, has borne the name of John ‘Johnny’ Henderson, late father of trainer Nicky Henderson, who, as founder of Racecourse Holdings Trust, is credited with securing the future of Cheltenham Racecourse in the Sixties.
Nowadays, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase is a prestigious Grade 3 handicap steeplechase, run over 2 miles and 62 yards on the New Course at Prestbury Park and open to horses aged five years and upwards. The Grand Annual Chase has been a fixture of the Cheltenham Festival since 1913, but the inaugural running actually took place nearly seven decades earlier, ‘in the neighbourhood of Andoversford’, which lies approximately six miles east of Cheltenham, in 1834. The initial contest was an eventful affair, eventually won by Fugleman, owned and ridden by Mr. R. D’Oyley. The Grand Annual Chase was discontinued in the latter part of the nineteenth century and, in the early twentieth century, staged at various other venues before returning, permanently, to Cheltenham.
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.
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.
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.