Donn's Articles » Paul Townend

Paul Townend

The thing about your typical 18-year-old is that he knows it all. He knows that he doesn’t need advice, that the views of his elders are dated, he knows what is wrong with the world and he knows how he is going to fix it. He also knows that his inner insecurity can be masked by an outward bravado.

Paul Townend is 18 and atypical. He knows that he doesn’t know it all, says that he still has a lot to learn, a long way to go. He is relaxed, quietly-spoken, happy in his own skin, nonchalant even, exuding a quiet confidence that comes with achievement. He says that he has been very lucky. The opportunities that have landed on his lap don’t come around every day. But it isn’t just opportunities that make you the hottest young property in racing. What Townend doesn’t say is that he had the talent to grasp those opportunities, hold on tight and allow them carry him up towards the stratosphere.

The source of Townend’s latest opportunity was as unlikely as it was horrific. Two weeks ago yesterday, Ruby Walsh was travelling easily going to the second last flight on the Paul Nicholls-trained Pride Of Dulcote in the three-mile handicap hurdle at Cheltenham. The horse stepped at the obstacle, however, and came down. A following horse kicked Walsh in the belly and ruptured his spleen. Ten minutes later at Punchestown, Paul Townend went out and won the novice handicap hurdle on Imperial Hills for Willie Mullins, a horse that Walsh probably would have ridden had he not been at Cheltenham. The vagaries of racing are encapsulated in that 10-minute spell – Walsh being carted off to Cheltenham General Hospital to have his spleen removed, Townend tipping his cap in the winner’s enclosure. If you could have viewed the two in split-screen, the contrast would have been as stark as a black spot on a white canvas. Opposite ends of the divide.

Townend reaches forward and touches the wooden table, leans back and touches the wooden arm of his chair. He can’t touch enough wood. He has been lucky, he hasn’t suffered any major injuries to date, but you never know when this game is going to jump up and stab you in the back. It isn’t for nothing that two ambulances follow you while you work. It’s desperate for Ruby, of course it is, you hate to see another jockey suffering an injury. Apart from anything else, apart from the human side, it is a harsh reminder of the reality of the sport. At the same time, however, you have to make the most of the opportunities that come your way, no matter how they come your way.

Opportunities have never been thin on the ground for Townend. At almost every stage of his brief riding career to date, the gaps have appeared. Every time he has needed another rung on the ladder, one has presented itself and he has hauled himself up. Call it fortune, call it talent, call it a mixture of both. The fortune that the opportunity appeared, the ability to see it, the talent to exploit it.

He can’t remember learning to ride, as in, he can’t remember a time in his life when he couldn’t ride, like most of us can’t remember learning to talk or learning to walk. He has just always ridden, as natural as putting one foot in front of another.

“I was put up on a pony before I could walk,” he says with a laugh.

There were always horses around at home, just outside Middleton in County Cork. His father, Tim, trained a few horses under restricted licence and had a couple of point-to-pointers. His uncles and grandparents were all involved. He started off doing gymkhanas and shows, then did a little bit of show jumping and went pony racing when he was 12.

“All I ever wanted to be was a jockey,” he says, “and sure pony racing was like being a jockey, so I loved that, more than show jumping, although I learned a lot about riding when I was show jumping. I suppose there’s a lot more skill involved in show jumping, but pony racing is mad, it teaches you how to ride a race, you have to be really on the ball to do it. If you miss the break in pony racing you can’t win. The show jumping slows you back down, you have to understand how to ride. The mix of the two was perfect for me.”

He spent three years on the pony racing circuit, traversing Kerry, Limerick and West Cork in search of winners. His talents were quickly noted and he was much in demand. He was leading jockey twice in Dingle (the Cheltenham of pony racing) and he managed to land the Dingle Derby once, the Holy Grail of pony racing.

He lasted as long as he could at school, did his Junior Cert, then left. He says he did ok without going into specifics, but there was no subject that stood out, no subject that he liked or disliked more than others. They were all the same and none of them were horses. He began his transition year at Willie Mullins’s yard in a deal that was brokered by his first cousin Davy Condon, who was riding for Willie at the time, in November 2006, two years ago this month. Little did he know that he would be able to fit at least 24 months into a transition year. This transition is still ongoing.

Although Townend started out on the flat, his future was almost certainly always going to lie over jumps. He has always been heavy enough for a flat jockey. He could have tried to keep his weight in check, but it would have been tough and he would have had no life as a result, he figures. He prefers riding over jumps anyway. When he was growing up, it was always National Hunt racing, Cheltenham not Ascot, the Grand National not the Derby. When he was looking to join a trainer, therefore, to take out an apprenticeship, it was a National Hunt trainer that he sought.

“There would have been no point in joining a flat yard,” he says, “and then when I would turn jumping, have to start at the bottom of the ladder again. Willie’s great like that. He’d give you a chance under both codes.”

You can trace the stepping stones in Townend’s career very easily. It is remarkable to think now that he didn’t have his first ride on a racecourse until May 2007, that’s just 18 months ago, when he finished third on Temlett, trained by Mullins, in a Ballinrobe maiden. He didn’t have to wait too long for his first winner, The Chip Chopman for Seamus O’Donnell in an apprentice handicap at Limerick the following month. Nor his second, The Chip Chopman again, four days later. Dream start.

“I’ve been lucky to get up on the right horses,” says the jockey thoughtfully. “All you can do is give the horses you get up on the best ride you can. You need the horse.”

Emily Blake provided at least two stepping stones: a handicap at Limerick in July 2007 followed by a win on the big stage in a big handicap at the Galway Festival four days later. The shop window was ever expanding.

“I just saw my name down in the declarations before the Limerick race,” he says. “My agent Ciaran O’Toole had got me on her. So I was delighted. After I won on her there, John Hayden told me that they were going to Galway with her, and that they were going to leave me on her, so that was brilliant.”

It was at Galway this year that Townend recorded the biggest win of his brief career to date when he steered the John Kiely-trained Indian Pace to victory in the Galway Hurdle.

“That was a great opportunity to get,” he says. “I was only after riding three winners over jumps, and here I was, riding the best-backed horse in the Galway Hurdle. I had ridden Indian Pace to win twice on the flat, I actually lost my 10lb claim on him. I knew the horse, I got on well with him, they wanted to claim off him so, thankfully they left me on him.”

That was one of those races in which everything went right. When Townend needed a gap, one appeared. When he needed a good jump, Indian Pace gave him one. He arrived on the outside around the home turn, joined Eagle’s Pass over the last, and bounded clear on the run-in. That was huge.

“Things were going well for me before that,” says Paul, “especially on the flat, but that win really kick-started me over jumps. I started getting good rides then over jumps, really good rides, and there were a lot more trainers wanting to use me. So I owe Indian Pace a lot.”

A measure of the esteem in which the 18-year-old is held lies in the fact that, with Ruby on the sidelines and a rider needed for Cooldine, one of the most exciting novice chasing prospects around this year, on his chasing debut at Thurles last week, Willie Mullins decided to put Townend up. The fact that the youngster had only ridden one winner over fences before, and never the winner of a novices’ chase, was irrelevant. He rode Cooldine with a cool head, kicked him on early and won doing handsprings.

This afternoon, there will be another first for Townend when he gets the leg up on Hurricane Fly in the Royal Bond Hurdle, his first ride in a Grade 1 race. A half an hour later, he will have his second.

“It’s great to be getting these opportunities,” says the young jockey, “to be riding these good horses in these good races. There shouldn’t be much between Hurricane Fly and Willie’s other horse, Cousin Vinny. My horse is a nice horse, I ride him a lot at home, and he has a bit of experience. Both of them should go close. And Golden Silver wouldn’t be without a chance in the Drinmore. He gave me a really nice ride at Punchestown two weeks ago. It’s a hot race, but he deserves his place in it.”

There is no question that Paul Townend deserves his place in Grade 1 company. Here is a youngster with his head on his shoulders, his feet on the ground and a natural ability that is rare. Atypical, if you like. And he’s only just getting going.

© The Sunday Times, 28th November 2008