Al Boum Photo will face a maximum of 11 rivals when he bids for back-to-back victories in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.
Having saddled the runner-up on no less than six occasions, the Cheltenham Festival’s winning-most trainer Willie Mullins finally claimed the most prestigious prize in National Hunt racing after Al Boum Photo roared up the hill in front 12 months ago.
Having warmed up for his return to the Cotswolds by winning the same New Year’s Day race at Tramore as he did last year, the eight-year-old is well fancied to become the first horse to successfully defend the Gold Cup crown since Best Mate, who completed a hat-trick between 2002 and 2004.
Mullins has a notable string to his bow in Kemboy, who made it no further than the first fence in last year’s renewal, but was impressive on his next start at Aintree and defeated Al Boum Photo in a Punchestown Gold Cup that will forever be remembered as Ruby Walsh’s swansong.
However, he has had to make do with minor honours on each of his two starts this season behind Delta Work, who will bid to provide his trainer Gordon Elliott with a second Gold Cup, following the triumph of Don Cossack four years ago.
Pat Kelly’s Presenting Percy was favourite for the blue riband last season, but needs to raise his game after finishing behind Delta Work and Kemboy in the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup this term.
The Irish challenge is completed by the Mullins-trained Real Steel and Henry de Bromhead’s pair of Monalee and Chris’s Dream.
The home team is headed by Nicky Henderson’s Santini, who has long been considered a Gold Cup contender, and has joined Al Boum Photo at the head of the market since defeating Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in late January.
Paul Nicholls has high hopes for dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux as he bids to equal Tom Dreaper’s record of five Gold Cup wins, while Lostintranslation is a major player for Colin Tizzard, despite pulling up behind Clan Des Obeaux at Kempton on Boxing Day. Tizzard could also saddle Elegant Escape.
The stellar field is completed by the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Bristol De Mai. The dual Betfair Chase winner is winless after five previous outings at Cheltenham, but has been placed on four occasions, including when third in last year’s Gold Cup.