And then came Al Boum Photo, a winner first in 2019, again last year and now favourite to win a first hat-trick since Best Mate in 2004.
And yet the nine-year-old is building up to his arrival on British soil with far less fanfare than is deserving. Part of that is down to the nature of this year’s Festival. For one, the usual hoards will not be crossing the Irish Sea for the behind-closed-doors event.
In addition, the pre-Festival headlines have been rather more about the runners of Mullins’ rival Gordon Elliott after the fall-out from his photo atop a dead horse.
Disregarding both aspects, the fanfare has never been all that big for Al Boum Photo, in part as he is generally hidden away from the wider public for much of the year.
As ITV Racing presenter Ed Chamberlin put it: “People don’t see him much, and that’s not a criticism of Willie Mullins.Whatever he’s doing with the horse is working so why change it? But there’s nothing flamboyant about him.”
Al Boum Photo can only beat the horses put in front of him and, on paper at least, this year’s Gold Cup does not instantly appear like a line-up for the ages.
There could and should be more fanfare around the horse, but that is partly the doing of owners Joe Donnelly and his wife Marie.
Donnelly used to be a renowned Irish bookmaker before selling up the business to relocate to Paris and focus on his other business interests: property and fine art, which includes ownership of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse among others.
The couple rarely give interviews either before the big occasion or in the height of celebration at Cheltenham making it harder still to build colour and a resultant fan base around the horse.
The apparent lack of adulation could shift if Gold Cup No3 becomes a reality next week but, whatever the outcome at the winning post, Mullins will always have a soft spot for the trainer to break the deadlock.
“I had probably got used to the disappointment of never winning it with six seconds,” he said, “and I had probably resigned myself to that. When we buy horses, I try to buy what I think is a Gold Cup winner or Champion Hurdle winner, and we have been lucky with theChampion Hurdle.
“I thought maybe my method of training was more suited to two-milers. We have had plenty of stayers, and Hedgehunter won the Grand National, but I just wondered if I train them a bit too fast for theGold Cup.”
The doubts have been erased but Mullins readily admits Al Boum Photo, in his eyes, was never going to be the horse to break the deadlock.
“I didn’t think when we were buying him we’d be in this position,” he confessed. “He’s got a funny back history but here he is, a double Gold Cup winner going for his third. We’re very privileged to have him.”
And so too the wider public, albeit watching from the comfort of their sofas rather than packing out Cheltenham as last year.
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