Boum or bust as Mullins targets Cheltenham Gold Cup treble

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Cheltenham (United Kingdom) (AFP)

Al Boum Photo bids to become the fifth horse to win three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups on Friday as Rachael Blackmore eyes a rare double at the four-day festival of jump racing.

The focus is firmly back on the turf after the sport's image was badly tarnished when a picture recently circulated of leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse.

Blackmore this week became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and will compete against Bryony Frost, who is riding the bold, front-running Frodon in the blue riband event.

Blackmore, if successful on A Plus Tard, would complete the dream double last achieved by AP McCoy in 1997 after Tuesday's historic victory on Honeysuckle.

The Northern Irishman is retired but his influence lives on as the horse named after him by his long-time retainer JP McManus, Champ, is a contender in Friday's race.

Native River, the champion in 2018, would be a popular winner should he become the first horse since Kauto Star (wins in 2007 and 2009) to regain his crown.

Trainer Colin Tizzard lost his daughter Kim Gingell -- "his right-hand woman" as he termed her -- to cancer last year at the age of 43.

Al Boum Photo, though, is the benchmark.

Some have questioned the quality of rivals he has beaten in the past two years while others find it hard to warm to him because he is lightly raced.

However, 1999 Gold Cup-winning jockey Mick Fitzgerald takes a different view.

He says trainer Willie Mullins's preparation resembles that of Henrietta Knight, who masterminded Best Mate's three-in-a row, starting in 2002.

"The horse showed that, raced sparingly, he is right for the biggest stage," he told AFP. "Is that wrong or right? That is why you have brilliant trainers. Not one size fits all.

"Willie Mullins does not say a lot but he sees a lot. He is a genius."

- 'Pegasus' -

For any Irish trainer the ultimate accolade is to be compared to Ireland's finest, Arkle, who won the event in 1964, 1965 and 1966.

"It's unbelievable to be on the brink of an Arkle achievement," said Mullins. "It would be extraordinary if he managed to do it. We never dreamed he would."

Just as Mullins has formed productive partnerships with his jockeys, including the retired Ruby Walsh and now Paul Townend, who rides Al Boum Photo, Henry de Bromhead has formed a formidable team with Blackmore.

De Bromhead has a golden chance to become the first trainer since Kim Bailey in 1995 to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double at the same Festival with A Plus Tard.

If Irish jockey Blackmore, 31, is triumphant she will most likely play down the fact she would be the first woman to win the Gold Cup.

She and English rider Frost have been increasingly prominent in recent years.

"It's amazing. Rachael is as good as any of them -- male, female, she is as good as any of the guys," said De Bromhead after Blackmore's victory in the Champion Hurdle.

Frost has had her own golden moment during the current season, a sublime front-running ride on Frodon in December to become the first woman jockey to win the King George VI Chase.

The 25-year-old described Frodon as "like Pegasus, he has got wings" after her triumph.

He may need that and more to defy Al Boum Photo.