Donn's Articles » Paul Townend

Paul Townend

Paul Townend is 19 years old, 20 in September. He didn’t have his first ride on a racecourse until May 2007, his first big-race win was on Indian Pace in the 2008 Galway Hurdle, when he rode Cooldine to win his beginners’ chase at Thurles in November 2008, he was riding just his second winner over fences, and Hurricane Fly in the Royal Bond Hurdle later that month was his first ride in a Grade 1 race. Strange that – it seems like he has been around for ages.

A measure of Townend’s talent lies in the fact that, when Ruby Walsh got injured at Cheltenham’s November meeting in 2008, Willie Mullins – who knows a thing or two about horses and riders and talent – had no hesitation in putting Townend up on the good horses. Cooldine, Hurricane Fly, Golden Silver, Mikael D’Haguenet, Townend rode them all in all the big races, and duly delivered.

If there was one ride that stood out, however, it was the ride on Hurricane Fly in the Royal Bond Hurdle. They didn’t go a great gallop, but Townend, a Grade 1 debutant, had the confidence in himself and in his horse to sit until they jumped the last before delivering his horse and using his turn of foot to take it up on the run-in. Mullins didn’t need a household name to ride his horses, Townend would be one soon enough.

He rode Mikael D’Haguenet to beat the long odds-on favourite Pandorama in the Barry & Sandra Kelly Memorial Hurdle at Navan the following month, he rode Hurricane Fly again to win the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, he rode Golden Silver to beat Forpadydeplasterer in the Irish Arkle Chase and suddenly his Grade 1 cabinet was filling up.

This season, Ruby Walsh had the temerity to stay sound, but Townend’s march has continued inexorably. He rode 36 winners in Ireland last season. This season, he has already ridden 45 and sits fourth in the jockeys’ championship. Second jockey to Willie Mullins is a better job than first jockey at most other yards in the country, he tells you, no disrespect to other yards, and even Ruby can get it wrong sometimes. The champ rode Scotsirish in the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and Townend won the race on Golden Silver, Ruby rode Cousin Vinny in the PJ Moriarty Chase, and Townend won it on Citizen Vic. Two more Grade 1 races in the bag.

“Thankfully things have gone right when Willie has given me the chance,” says the young rider. “Working there six days a week, you get to know the horses, and that’s a big help. Things have gone right, I’ve had a lot of luck, like in the Moriarty, Ruby picked Cousin Vinny and Citizen Vic got his own way in front, kept galloping. I have a great job with Willie, things are going great, most weekends Willie has a winner, like it would be a bad weekend if he didn’t have a winner.”

Townend kicks Grand National week off by riding Ballytrim in the Irish National at Fairyhouse tomorrow. Winner of the Leinster National at Naas four weeks ago, he goes there with every chance.

“He didn’t run great in the Thyestes,” says the rider, “and he wasn’t working great before Naas the last day, but he came out and won handy enough. I’d say he had plenty more in the locker, he wasn’t doing a whole lot, so hopefully he might improve again. He doesn’t jump great out of heavy ground, which is a bit of a worry, but he is a careful jumper, which is probably what you want. He could be good enough.”

Next Saturday, he will ride the JP McManus-owned Arbor Supreme for Willie in the Aintree Grand National. Ruby was confirmed for the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Fella Thanks last week, and Townend had a chat with Willie last weekend to try to decide between Arbor Supreme and Snowy Morning.

“I tried to look at it from every perspective,” he says thoughtfully, “and I kind of came to the conclusion that Arbor Supreme would be the better ride. He has always looked like a National horse, and if he takes to the fences, he should stay galloping. It was a tough choice though. Snowy has been there before, he finished third in the race, he has jumped around the course twice, and he should be thereabouts. Arbor Supreme is a funny horse to ride, you just have to leave him alone and get him jumping himself. But the Grand National has been his aim all year, so hopefully he’ll give me a good ride.”

Townend rode Irish Invader in the National last year. It was his first ride in the race, his first ride over the big fences, his first time even going to Aintree, and it was one of the best things he has ever done.

“That was massive,” he says. “I was just buzzing afterwards, the thrill of it, so many fences, big fences, horses everywhere, the whole build up to it, then riding in it, and getting round, finishing the National, it was just a massive feeling, something you always dreamt of doing, whatever about winning it, just finishing it was amazing. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

He could be in for an even better feeling on Saturday.

© The Sunday Times, 4th April 2010