Donn's Articles » Paul Townend

Paul Townend

Golden Silver was doing nothing. Awkward at the second fence, tight at the third, ponderous at the fourth, he was last of the five runners as they wheeled down the back straight, four lengths off his rivals.

He was better over the next couple of fences, but it all looked difficult. There was nothing fluent about this performance, progress was stunted. What do you do? What can you do? Paul Townend just squeezed him a little, kidded him along, tried to make the horse think that he was doing it himself, of his own volition.

They had managed to catch the early pace-setter Changing Course on the approach to the third last, but by that stage Big Zeb, Sizing Europe and Scotsirish had quickened up in front. All three rivals stood right off the third last obstacle, and all three flew it, jumped it as one, hardly broke stride, momentum continued. Townend needed a fluent jump from Golden Silver just so that they could remain in contention, but his horse got in tight, gave the top of the fence a belt with his belly, tail up in the air, momentum checked. In that instant the distance of four horse-lengths that had been between Golden Silver and his three rivals was doubled, and those quickfinger betting exchange players who know about these things reckoned he was an 89/1 shot: a lost cause.

Big Zeb got the better of Sizing Europe up front and travelled easily down to the second last. Townend got low in the saddle, right in behind his horse’s neck, gave him a squeeze, a slap down the neck. He was better at the second last, and suddenly, on the run to the last, the horse picked up the bridle, moved past Scotsirish, past Sizing Europe, only three lengths behind Big Zeb. At the final fence, it was Big Zeb’s turn to get in tight as Golden Silver flew it on the near side, adrenaline up, just a length down. He edged closer, drew level with 100 yards to run, heads bobbing in sequence for a couple of strides, whips flailing, before he inched on and won by a half a length.

This was vintage Townend, insofar as a 20-year-old can be vintage. Most riders will win most races when they are on the best horse, but the best riders will win more than their fair share when they are not on the best horse. Barry Geraghty kicked himself afterwards for going on too early on Big Zeb, for racing Sizing Europe from so far out, but what was he to do? It should have been a race-winning move, ordinarily it would have been a race-winning move, but this was no ordinary race.

“Golden Silver takes his time to get into a race,” says Townend. “You just can’t rush him. I was probably a length or two further back than I wanted to be down the back straight, but I couldn’t do anything about it. You just have to sit on him, you can’t get down and carry him, you just have to cajole him along. I thought when we missed the third last we were definitely beaten, but he took off after the second last, and he winged the last. I suppose we caught Big Zeb on the hop a bit, but that’s the way it goes.”

It has all been going pretty well for Paul Townend for a while now. Ruby Walsh’s absence through injury means that, for the champion jockey’s understudy at Willie Mullins’s, opportunity knocks. You don’t expect a young substitute to be as good as Lionel Messi, but you wouldn’t bring him on if you didn’t think that the he was up to the job, and there was never any doubt that the young Corkman was up to this one.

We have been here before. Cheltenham, November 2008, Pride Of Dulcote fires Ruby Walsh into the ground and a following horse kicks him in the stomach and ruptures his spleen. Paul Townend is 18, he has ridden just one winner over fences in his life, yet Willie Mullins has no hesitation in entrusting him with the responsibility that is Cooldine, a hugely exciting novice chaser, on his chasing bow at Thurles. Townend has never ridden a Grade 1 winner before, he has never even ridden in a Grade 1 race, yet again, Mullins gives him the leg up on exciting novice hurdler Hurricane Fly in the Royal Bond Hurdle. In both instances, the youngster upholds his end of the bargain with a confidence in the saddle that is quite staggering.

Four winners at Punchestown last Sunday, one at Down Royal on Wednesday, and another at Clonmel on Thursday, brought his tally to 56 for the season so far and took him to the top of the jockeys’ title, one clear of Paul Carberry and Andrew McNamara. Coincidentally, he rode exactly 56 winners for the entire of last season, his best season ever to date. Ask him to what he attributes this success, and he grins his boyish grin:

“Willie’s horses and Ruby’s absence.”

It is typically self-deprecating, matter-of-fact, nonchalant even. The same no-nonsense approach that he adopts in the saddle. No cartwheels, no heroics, just get the job done with minimum fuss. Riding horses is what he does, public and media attention is something he accepts rather than embraces as he goes about his business.

But such is the arsenal of equine talent at Willie Mullins’s, it is difficult for the trainer’s rider to remain out of the limelight. Hurricane Fly, Zaidpour, Mikael D’Haguenet, So Young, Mourad, Quel Esprit, Cooldine, Golden Silver, Day Of A Lifetime, Gagewell Flyer: you can’t ride those horses and expect to remain under the radar. And you can’t ride them in the top races on the calendar, and expect to remain free from pressure, even if you are a Fox’s Glacier Mint.

“You’d be a bit nervous on your way to the races all right,” says the rider. “But once you get there and get your silks on, you forget about it all. You just go out and ride your race.”

Things don’t always pan out as they should, mind you. There have been reversals. Blackstairmountain’s defeat at Punchestown last month was one, Zaidpour’s defeat in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas was another.

“Zaidpour was never really travelling at Leopardstown,” says the rider thoughtfully. “Usually he’d carry you into the race, as you saw at Fairyhouse. He just never travelled that day, I was always just niggling and niggling to try to get there. He was flat, he bounced, he actually did really well to get so close to a good horse in First Lieutenant. Hopefully he will make up for it when he goes in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.”

As well as Zaidpour, Townend also rides Mikael D’Haguenet in the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase and Cooldine in the Hennessy Gold Cup for Willie Mullins this afternoon, and he rides the Moyglare Stud filly Unaccompanied for Dermot Weld in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Four Grade 1 contests on the day and Townend is riding three favourites and Cooldine. Business as usual then.

© The Sunday Times, 6th February 2011