If there’s one event guaranteed to get pulses going each year, it’s the Cheltenham Festival held between Tuesday and Friday during the second week of March. This annual event is a four-day extravaganza which celebrates everything great about National Hunt racing, attracting huge crowds of people eager to soak up the atmosphere and excitement.

While there’s plenty of thrilling races taking place every day, it’s the fourth and final day when the festival truly reaches its crescendo, for this is when the Gold Cup is held. As the most valuable non-handicap race held in Britain, this is the one that everyone wants to win. Jockeys, trainers and horses have earned themselves legendary status thanks to winning the Gold Cup, which underlines how prestigious this famous steeplechase has become.

Al Boum Photo thundered past the winning post in first at the Gold Cup in 2019, despite being considered a 12/1 outsider. However, many who backed this magnificent horse will undoubtedly have been looking beyond the odds, because this was a chaser in great form ridden by experienced jockey Paul Townsend and trained by none other than Irish racing legend, Willie Mullins.

The challenge of back-to-back Gold Cup victories

This year, the same trio of horse, jockey and trainer will be looking to repeat their success. If the latest Cheltenham Gold Cup betting tips are any indication, Al Boum Photo will inevitably considered the horse to beat around the notoriously challenging “New Course” at Cheltenham Racecourse. Nevertheless, history also shows that winning the Gold Cup more than once is one of the most difficult feats to achieve in National Hunt racing.

Arguably one of the greatest National Hunt racehorses of all time, Kauto Star triumphed at the Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009, but didn’t achieve the glory of back-to-back victories, losing the 2006 race by seven lengths to Denham. Since the triple sweep of Arkle from 1964 and 1966, followed by back-to-back wins for L’Escargo in 1970 and 1971, only Best Mate with three successive triumphs between 2002 and 2004 has achieved consecutive Gold Cup victories.

Although not impossible, back-to-back victories are an incredibly tall order, different approaches have also played their part. Kauto Star was a uniquely powerful and prolific racehorse, with the French-bred champion also winning the King George VI Chase five times. By comparison, Best Mate ran less and was arguably reserved with the Gold Cup in mind, especially ahead of the second and third victories.

Warming up for the Gold Cup

Despite being the most successful trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, boasting a magnificent haul of 65 winners over the years, last year was the first time that Irish racing legend Willie Mullins had ever toasted victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That said, his shrewd preparations with Al Boum Photo are clear evidence that with careful planning and preparations, selective racing for a horse can certainly pay dividends.

Ahead of the Gold Cup last year Al Boum Photo was raced just once, winning the Savills Chase on New Year’s Day at Tramore in Waterford, Ireland. This year, Willie Mullins has taken precisely the same approach and on 1st January 2020, in the same race and at the same venue, the same winning outcome was achieved and by the same six-length margin of victory.

The only difference was that instead of Ruby Walsh riding Al Boum Photo at Tramore, Paul Townend was in the saddle. This makes for an almost identical campaign and set of preparations ahead of the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup for horse and trainer, with a comfortable win and run at Tramore, before being rested and readied for the big prize and headline event at the Cheltenham Festival.

Weighing up the Gold Cup rivals

Although it’s clear that achieving back-to-back Cheltenham Gold Cup victories is no easy feat, eight-year-old Al Boum Photo is regarded as the outright favourite amongst all the leading horseracing bookmakers. That doesn’t mean to say there’s any lack of genuine competition, however, because the race this year will feature a very strong field of rivals.

These rivals include highly successful National Hunt thoroughbreds such as Kemboy, another powerful horse trained by Willie Mullins, who stayed well to beat Al Boum Photo by two lengths at Punchestown in May 2019. Presenting Percy is considered an outsider for the Gold Cup this year, but he also has experience of finishing ahead of Al Boum Photo, winning the Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018.

With potential winners such as Lostintranslation and Clan Des Obeaux in the mix, along with Santini and Delta Work having become highly fancied in recent weeks, the final day and headline event at Cheltenham will have racegoers on the edge of their seats. After waiting so long to get his first Gold Cup winner last year, Willie Mullins will be hungry for another, and what a great story it would make if Al Boum Photo can do it again.