Donn's Articles » Irish jockeys’ championship

Irish jockeys’ championship

Paul Townend went to Naas on Tuesday and won the opening maiden hurdle on Icare Desbois.  That brought his total number of winners for the current Irish National Hunt season to 113, just three behind the championship leader Jack Kennedy.  Then Jack Kennedy won the sixth race on The Niffler, his 117th winner of the season, and the lead was back to four.

The two riders had three rides each at Clonmel on Thursday evening.  Market prices suggested that Paul Townend had a slightly better book of rides on the evening, an expected value of 1.21 winners, as opposed to 0.84 for Jack Kennedy.  Both were zero for two on the evening before they went toe-to-toe in the feature race, Townend on the 4/5 favourite Horantzau D’Airy, Kennedy on the 13/8 second favourite Hollow Games.  Townend won the race on Horantzau D’Airy and the gap was back to three.

Willie Mullins had two runners on Friday, but they were both in amateur riders’ races, so Townend had the day off.  Jack Kennedy went to Limerick for five rides on the evening and he won on one of them, Favori De Champdou in the Grade 3 novices’ chase, and the gap of four was restored: 118-114.

The battle between Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy for the 2023/24 Irish National Hunt jockeys’ championship is a thread that has been running through the entire season.  It was there last season too, in the early part of the season, but it dissipated before it could really gain traction.  Kennedy was 18 ahead in early January when he suffered that sickening broken leg that saw him miss the remainder of the season.  In the end, Townend coasted to victory in the championship, a fifth in a row and a sixth in total.

It’s a coveted title, a rare honour.  Not many people are crowned champion National Hunt jockey in Ireland.  There have been 34 championships since 1989/90, when they switched from crowning the champion at the end of the calendar year to crowning the champion at the end of the season, but there have only been six champions: Charlie Swan, Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, Paul Carberry, Davy Russell and Paul Townend.  That’s it.  It’s exalted company.  

Paul Townend belongs in that company.  He is a worthy champion, a deserving title-holder.  Crowned champion for the first time at the end of the 2010/11 season before he had turned 21, he has slipped seamlessly into the role as Willie Mullins’ number one rider, vacated by Ruby Walsh on his retirement from the saddle in 2019, and there can hardly be a greater commendation than that.

He excels on the big stage: Galopin Des Champs in the 2023 Cheltenham Gold Cup, I Am Maximus in the 2023 Irish Grand National.  He was brilliant in both races, each ride requiring different a different skill set.  And he was superb again last Saturday on I Am Maximus in the Aintree Grand National.

But he also does the day-to-day stuff well.  You can’t win the championship if you don’t.  The jockeys’ championship is about quantity, not quality.  You win an 80-95 handicap hurdle on a Thursday afternoon, it’s one win, same as if you win the Irish Gold Cup.   

Townend has had some season so far.  The Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, leading rider at Cheltenham again, the Irish Gold Cup, the Irish Champion Hurdle.  The Grand National.  A seventh championship would put the cap on it.

Jack Kennedy has had a fantastic season too thus far.  He was 11 behind Townend in the championship when he returned from his injury in early July and drove I A Connect home in a beginners’ chase at Tipperary.  Then he started rattling off the winners: 16 in October, 28 in November, 16 more in December.  By the turn of the calendar, he was 21 clear of Townend in the championship.

And it wasn’t only about quantity either.  He won the Champion Chase at Down Royal on Gerri Colombe and he won the Stayers’ Hurdle on Teahupoo.  He won two of the three Grade 1 races on Hatton’s Grace Hurdle weekend at Fairyhouse in December, and he rode three Grade 1 winners at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, one on each of the first three days, Found A Fifty, Caldwell Potter and Irish Point.

You have to remind yourself that Jack Kennedy is still just shy of his 25th birthday.  He was only 17 when he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Labaik, his first Cheltenham Festival winner, and he was only 21 when he won the Gold Cup on Minella Indo.  The job as number one rider for Gordon Elliott is obviously a massive job, but the responsibility rests easily on Kennedy’s young shoulders.  His relaxed demeanour out of the saddle is mirrored in his riding style.  Horses relax for him.  Horses run for him.

Jack Kennedy has spurred Paul Townend on this season, Paul Townend has spurred Jack Kennedy on.  And they have dominated the big races.  First and second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, first and second in the Champion Hurdle, first and second in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, first and second in the Arkle, first and second in the Grand National.

It is rare that you ride 100 winners in an Irish National season and miss out on the title, yet, already, with two weeks to go, both riders are well through the century mark.  Both riders have enough winners on the board already this season to have won 11 of the last 14 championships.

The two jockeys were in Scotland yesterday, riding at Ayr.  Winners at Ayr obviously do not count in the Irish jockeys’ championship, but there was no National Hunt racing in Ireland yesterday, so there was no opportunity cost in the championship.  They are back at Tramore today.  Jack Kennedy has five rides, Paul Townend has three.

It’s a busy week ahead in the championship.  Tramore again on Monday, Tipperary on Tuesday, Bellewstown on Wednesday, Wexford on Thursday, Downpatrick on Friday.  Then it’s onto the Punchestown Festival next week, and into the home straight in the 2023/24 National Hunt season.

You know that Willie Mullins will be strong at Punchestown, his challenge for the British trainers’ championship notwithstanding.  You know that Paul Townend will have a deep book of rides during the final week of the season.  Last year, with Jack Kennedy still out through injury, the reigning champion jockey rode 11 winners at the Punchestown Festival.  In 2022 he rode nine, while Jack Kennedy rode two. 

This could go all the way to the wire.

© The Sunday Times, 21st April 2024