By Kieran Murphy
LAST week Al Boum Photo received a hero’s welcome when he was paraded through the streets of Leighlinbridge.
It was one of these evenings. If you could measure feel-good factor, it would have been off the charts, right up in the stratosphere.
As the 2019 Gold Cup winner was led through the town there were magical moments for the large crowd who came out to greet him. Outside the Lord Bagenal, everyone wanted a little bit of the seven-year-old and with his handlers making him feel at ease, the horse took it all in and, quiet as a lamb, he posed for photographs.
Leighlinbridge man John ‘Bonzo’ McNally would probably be more at home at a football match, but he wasn’t going to miss this occasion.
“A super night for Leighlinbridge. No other village would get a Grand National winner coming in and now the Gold Cup,” he said.
Of course, he was referring to a similar occasion after Willie Mullins trained Hedgehunter to win at Aintree in 2005.
“The last one was on a Sunday night. A big turnout then and great to see so many out today too,” said McNally, who articulated what the presence of the Willie Mullins yard means to Leighlinbridge not just at a sporting level but from an economic point of view.
“Good to see a lot of local lads and a lot of people who spend a lot of money in the village with rent on flats, a few drinks, groceries.
“There is always a good atmosphere and I am sure some of the local lads backed it too. Great for Paul Townend. He is a lovely fella. You couldn’t meet a nicer lad.”
After Al Boum Photo was settled in at the Lord Bagenal, Willie Mullins reminded MC Dessie Scahill and the crowd how well the winning jockey performed during the race.
“He was moving well just behind the pace. I thought if everything goes well he has a chance. It opened up turning for home and Paul gave him a squeeze,” recalled Willie.
The rest is history. This time the horse and jockey maintained a straight line and nothing was going to stop Willie Mullins winning his first ever Gold Cup after finishing runner-up on six previous occasions.
After Townend and Al Boum Photo combined to run out at the Punchestown Festival last year, Willie Mullins confirmed at Cheltenham this year that Cork-native Paul Townend was never going to lose the ride on the horse.
On that occasion last April, the jockey dramatically steered the race leader right of the final hurdle, having apparently heard a shout instructing him to bypass the obstacle. It proved a costly mistake.
Mullins revealed the owners, Joe and Marie Donnelly, rang the yard the day after the Punchestown incident and promised there would be no repercussions for Townend.
In Leighlinbridge the Gold Cup winning jockey referred to this.
“Lowest time and the greatest day,” he said. “We have seen both extremes with this horse and that is half the reason why we lost the run of ourselves crossing the line. Embarrassed myself a little bit,” suggested Townend.
“No, it is brilliant. Willie has always had my back and for the owners to stand by me was brilliant after what happened in Punchestown, [it] was a credit to them. To be able to pay both connections was brilliant,” he confirmed.
Also present in Leighlinbridge was Rachel Blackmore who is second to Paul in the race for the jockey’s championship this year. Cheltenham 2019 was the stuff of dreams for her too when she recorded her first ever winner in Cotswold country as A Plus Tard trained by Henry de Bromhead won The Close Brother’s Novice Handicap Chase. She followed this up when winning for the same owner on Minella in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
Fresh from an appearance on The Late Late Show the previous Friday with Paul Townend, she was glowing in Leighlinbridge.
“An incredible week. I could never have dreamt I would have two winners at the Cheltenham Festival. A fantastic week for me,” she said and while both go head to head in pursuit of the jockey’s championship she cannot say enough positive things about Paul.
“You are obviously going to be delighted when your friends win. He is a fantastic person and it is good to see good things happen to good people,” Blackmore enthused.
“It is fantastic and lovely to see such a big crowd here. Willie Mullins and all the staff put in such hard work and it is lovely to see people appreciate what they are doing,” she added.
Earlier Dessie Scahill tried to coax Eileen Amond to come to the stage but she demurred. A lady of few words, she has been in Closutton from almost the beginning and is an important part of the Mullins operation. It wasn’t hard to track her down.
“It is great,” she said of Al Boum Photo’s win while recalling she was also in Leighlinbridge when Hedgehunter received a hero’s welcome.
As for her well-known grandchild, a certain Padraig Amond whose heroics this year in the FA Cup have produced headlines?
“He is doing well. Thank God,” she said.
Evelyn McCullagh works in the office in Closutton. Close to her desk she watched events unfold on Gold Cup day. She wasn’t totally surprised to see Al Boum Photo win.
“It was a bit unbelievable but at the same time Willie has trained so many and so many good winners. It was always possible,” she noted. “Ecstatic,” is how she described the mood in the yard when Paul Townend crossed the line.
“We had other winners on the Tuesday as well so it was brilliant to finish up with the Gold Cup.”
Earlier in the evening the trainer’s mother, Maureen Mullins, admitted she had been going to Cheltenham for 75 years now. She recalled the feats of Dawn Run who won a Champion Hurdle in 1984 and went on to win the Gold Cup two years later. Trained by her late husband, Paddy, she firmly believes this is a double which will never be repeated.
“Dawn Run did something no mare will every do again. If you had one good enough to win a Champion Hurdle you wouldn’t chance it in the Gold Cup. Mrs Hill wasn’t afraid,” she said of the owner, Mrs Charmian Hill.
Michael Long was brought up just beside where Willie Mullins set up his Closutton yard. He admitted he made a few euros from Al Boum Photo’s success but there is a bigger picture for Long.
“Willie Mullins is very popular in the parish and in the area. You can see the turnout. The whole village must be here,” he suggested.
He wasn’t wrong. A wonderful evening which will live long in the memory. Just like when Hedgehunter dropped by 14 years ago.