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Paul Townend

It is taking a while for it to sink in.  It’s still sinking in.  Paul Townend, Gold Cup-winning jockey.

“It’s all such a blur,” says the rider.  “Even watching it back now.  It’s hard to believe it happened.”

But these things don’t just happen.  You don’t just wake up one morning and go and win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  It’s a process, a journey.  You start with the raw talent and the drive, you hone your talent, you develop it, you work hard, you engineer opportunities for yourself and, when they arrive, you grab them and kick them home.

Townend’s journey started in fields, at home just outside Middleton in County Cork, on ponies, with dreams.  He can’t remember a time in his life when he couldn’t ride.  He was put up on a horse before he could walk.  He started off in gymkhanas and shows, did some show jumping, went pony racing.

Transition year was compulsory in school, so he did his transition year with Willie Mullins, and he never left.

“I’d say it’s the longest transition year ever.”

He was still only 17 when he rode the John Kiely-trained Indian Pace to victory in the 2008 Galway Hurdle.  Willie Mullins recongised his talent instantly and entrusted him responsibility quickly.  When Ruby Walsh was injured at Cheltenham’s November meeting in 2008, it was to Townend that the champion trainer turned.  Light on experience but laden with talent, Townend delivered.

When he rode Cooldine to victory in his beginners’ chase at Thurles in November 2008, he was riding just his second winner over fences.  When he lined up on Hurricane Fly in the Royal Bond Hurdle later that month, he was riding in his first Grade 1 race.  He won that too. 

Townend had ridden nine Cheltenham Festival winners before he lined up on Al Boum Photo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last Friday.  The ninth was Duc Des Genievres in the Arkle on Tuesday.

“Duc Des Genievres was great.  And it was brilliant to get a winner on the board early in the week.  It definitely settles you.  But by the time Friday came around, Tuesday seemed like a long time ago.”

He found out on Wednesday that he would be riding Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, and he was delighted with that.  He knew that he was a good ride, that he was going there with a chance.

“I ride him a lot at home, and I knew that he would stay galloping.  And he had the class to win over two and a half miles.  You need that bit of class if you are going to be going Gold Cup pace.”

They went fast too.  Townend found himself a little further back than he had planned to be through the early stages of the race, but his main objective was to get his horse into a racing rhythm, to get some room and to get him jumping.

“It can be a long way around there if you don’t get into a good racing rhythm.”

He found his racing rhythm and he found his racing room, and Al Boum Photo jumped and travelled.  The horse’s rhythm took him into a good position, travelling well, not far off the pace.

“We ended up getting there without me doing anything.  He took me there.”

The rider under-plays his role.  Sometimes the most difficult thing for a rider to do in a race is nothing.

Al Boum Photo was one of four Willie Mullins-trained horses in Friday’s Gold Cup.  Kemboy unseated at the first fence, however, and Ruby Walsh pulled Bellshill up at the top of the hill.  Then, at the third last fence on the first circuit, Invitation Only fell and almost took Al Boum Photo with him.

“You can’t really react in that situation.  You have to just let the horse find his own way, and hope that it happens.  We could easily have come down there.  It’s just the bit of luck that you need.”

After that, plain sailing.  Al Boum Photo travelled easily through the final circuit of the race, Townend kicked him on as they straightened up for home and, after a small speed wobble at the back of the second last fence, he stayed on all the way up the hill to the winning line.

“You dream of winning a Gold Cup, but the reality is better than your dreams could ever be.  It’s just an incredible feeling.  Indescribable.  Coming back down the chute to that little pocket where all the lads were.  That was brilliant.  To do it for Willie.  All that he has done for me.  To repay him.  And for the owners Joe and Marie Donnelly who stuck with me.  And Al Boum Photo.  I owed it to the horse.”

He thought of his late mother.  He always thinks of his mother in those situations.  Always looking down on him.  Takes a moment.  His sister Jodie had to stay at home, but his other sister Caroline and his dad Tim were there.  In the winner’s enclosure.

“Good luck to anybody who would have tried to stop them getting in!  We got a photo with them and the horse.  That’ll be a cherished photo.”

Last Saturday, less than 24 hours after winning the Gold Cup, Paul Townend rode Roll Again to win a maiden hurdle at Down Royal.  On Sunday he rode a winner at Limerick.  On Monday, he rode a winner at Navan.  On Thursday, he rode a winner at Cork.  Yesterday, he rode a winner at Thurles.  There have been five days of National Hunt racing in Ireland since last Friday, and Paul Townend has ridden a winner on all five days.

That’s 99 for the season.  One more win and he will notch up the first century of his career.  There’s his drive.  No resting on laurels.  Working towards achieving his next objective.  The next big race.  The next jockeys’ championship.

For the Gold Cup-winning jockey, the journey continues.

© The Sunday Times, 24th March 2019