Donn's Articles » Jody Townend

Jody Townend

Rewind 12 months, Galway 2019, different world, different landscape.  Crowds and everything.

Jody Townend made her way through them to get to the parade ring before the Connacht Hotel Handicap, the big amateur riders’ handicap, the perennial feature race on the first day of the Galway racing festival.

She had been there before.  She had ridden the 66/1 shot Upgraded for Tony Martin to finish sixth in the race in 2018.  That was some buzz, sixth in a Connacht Hotel Handicap at Galway.  Imagine winning it.

The intervening 12 months had been eventful.  There was that fall when she was schooling in October that put her out for nine months.  She shrugs and smiles.

“I was supposed to be back in February,” she says.  “But then it got infected and I was out for longer.”

That’s what jockeys do, they shrug these things off, but it was serious.  She fractured her vertebrae in the fall, her T12, and she suffered compression of her spinal chord.  She had to have six screws and two rods inserted.  Even so, her sole focus was on getting herself right and getting back riding.

Then the infection.  She moved her target return date back.  They stopped and cleaned it out, but the infection had gone too far, so she had to go on a drip for six weeks.  She moved her target return date again.

“It was grand, I didn’t have to go to hospital or lie in bed.  I could do it myself.  I was walking around with this thing in my arm.  That was the most difficult part though, because the better I was feeling, the closer I was getting back to race-riding, the more I was missing it, if that makes sense.”

The last target that she set for her return was last year’s Galway Festival, and she made that target with a little bit of time to spare.  The ride that she gave Royal Illusion in the Ladies’ Derby at The Curragh nine days before Galway, while not a winning ride, told you that she was back all right.

Her boss Willie Mullins was running four in last year’s Connacht Hotel Handicap, and she desperately hoped that she would be on one of them.  Great White Shark was set to carry a low weight so, given that she can easily ride at Flat weights if and when she needs to, if she was going to have a ride in last year’s race, it was probable that it would be on the Le Havre mare.

“I didn’t know that I was riding her until the day before.  When declarations were made.  Nobody said anything to me, I just checked the declarations on-line, and saw my name down beside her.  That was brilliant.  I went home and Paul said to me, you know you’re riding at Galway tomorrow!”

Paul is Paul Townend, dual Gold Cup-winning jockey Paul Townend, Jody’s older brother, champion jockey.

“We’re fierce proud of Paul.”

She remembers traversing Kerry, following Paul on the pony racing circuit.

“That was what we did on a Sunday,” she recalls.  “Every Sunday.  That’s what I remember.  Get up in the morning, load up the car, go pony racing.”

It was always horses too for Jody.  She remembers riding as a seven-year-old, riding ponies and begging her dad Tim to allow her ride the racehorses.  She did a little bit of pony racing herself, and she did a lot of eventing and show jumping, before she took out her jockey’s licence.

Great White Shark was a little keen through the early stages of the race, so her rider dropped her in at the back of the field, covered her up.

“That’s her,” says Jody.  “She can be a bit keen, so I wasn’t going to push her early.  I just wanted to get her settled.”

Still well back in the field as they started the run down into the dip, she moved towards the outside in order to ensure a clear passage.  She gave her mare a squeeze as they ran towards the home turn.

“I wanted to come with one run, up the hill.  I was happy enough to go wide so that we would get a clear run at it.  Willie told me not to be afraid to go wide.  If you try to go inside at Galway and get checked, your race can be over.  But I couldn’t believe how well she travelled.”

Great White Shark and Jody Townend hit the front 100 yards out, and stayed on strongly up the hill to put almost two lengths between herself and her rivals by the time they got to the winning line.

“She was brilliant.  Unbelievable.  She was so strong up the hill.  It felt like she was going forwards while the others were going backwards.  I remember thinking, is this really happening?  I just concentrated on not falling off!”

One of the most coveted amateur riders’ prizes now on her CV, Townend has kicked on this year.  She rode Beret Rouge to win a bumper at Roscommon in June, she rode Dysart Diamond to win a bumper at Limerick last Thursday, both for Willie Mullins and, at The Curragh last weekend, she won the Ladies’ Derby on Princess Zoe for Tony Mullins.  She has ridden just 12 winners under Rules, and three of them have been since racing resumed.

“I have been very lucky,” she says.  “Willie has been wicked good to me.  He has given me great opportunities.  And Tony.  And when you are riding good horses, your confidence is high.”

She’s looking forward lots to Galway.  It will be different this year, no people, no crowds, but needs must, these are unusual times, and it is great that racing is going ahead.  She’d love to try to win another Connacht Hotel Handicap. Willie Mullins had 12 entries in the race, and she was hoping that she would be put on one of them.  She checked the declarations yesterday morning, and there it was again – Great White Shark: Miss J Townend.

© The Sunday Times, 26th July 2020