Tuesday 22 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: Faith in Townend pays off as Mullins finally breaks his Gold Cup duck

Al Boum Photo, with Paul Townend up, on the way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: PA
Al Boum Photo, with Paul Townend up, on the way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: PA
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

"I think I owed it to the horse," Paul Townend announced, a giddy enclosure tightening incoherently around him.

The demons of Punchestown could be decommissioned now. That phantom shout, making him swerve the final fence in a Champion Novice Chase that Al Boum Photo looked sure to win. The collision with Finian's Oscar. The 21-day ban. The awful, pitiless sense of notoriety. "My body's tingling, I swear to God it's shaking," the Midleton man told us now.

"This is like no feeling I've ever had before."

Some yards away, a chuckling Willie Mullins spun on his toes, Princess Anne having just handed him a pint bottle of the sponsors' product, declaring "This is your normal trophy!"

Nearby, Willie's mother, Maureen - now in her 90th year - stood, proudly beaming. And somewhere above the low Gloucestershire skies, you had to suspect old Paddy Mullins might just have been breaking the habit of a lifetime now.

Five words

It was said of Paddy that he'd never use five words where two would suffice. He could be studiously anodyne even on tumultuous days, though - sometimes - he found good reason.

His only Gold Cup win as a trainer came with Dawn Run's storeyed climb up the Cheltenham hill in 1986, Jonjo O'Neill on board.

Paddy's emotions stayed buttoned up that day, his enjoyment softened by Charmian Hill's decision to replace his and Maureen's son, Tony, as jockey.

And maybe the lesson then remains unchanged today. One declaring there to be few utterly perfect days in jump racing. Willie likes to watch races in relative solitude here from a corner of the main stand and, with a circuit still to run, three of his four contenders had already lost yesterday's battle.

The third to depart, Invitation Only, would never come home, having to be put down after taking a terrible tumble under son, Patrick. Willie knew immediately that it was bad, the screens still up as the field came around again, stewards waving them around the third last.

On the day, Sir Erec had been lost too, snapping a foreleg in the Triumph Hurdle, it all left a numbness in the air.

The connections of dead horses are met with tiptoe, murmuring gentility. As Joseph O'Brien walked to the parade ring after saddling up Rhinestone for the Albert Bartlett, even strangers reached out, just wordlessly, laying hands on him. Sir Erec, they knew, could have been anything.

A Thyestes winner, Invitation Only had time on his side too, but all those possibilities are gone now.

For Mullins, that was the asterisk on his day, the Gold Cup finally back in his family's grasp. So, as is his style, he directed the bouquets elsewhere.

The morning after Townend's error at Punchestown, Al Boum Photo's owners got on the phone to Closutton, enquiring about the jockey. The Donnellys wanted it known that they attached no blame.

"That was the first thought that crossed my mind when they went by the winning post," Willie explained.

"I was especially delighted that it was the same team that came back and won the Gold Cup.

"Because, that morning, they told me to tell Paul it was just a disappointment, nothing else. To kick on the next day.

"They're in racing a long time and they know that things happen."

For Townend, that morning would be mercifully redemptive. In another yard, the recrimination could have been loud and lingering, but Mullins knows a raised voice isn't always the solution. His trust in Townend stretches back more than a decade now and, inevitably, faith occasionally gets challenged.

So, for Townend, this felt like a debt repaid. To the Donnellys. To Mullins. Maybe most especially to the horse.

Al Boum Photo was only the third-ranked of Mullins's quartet in the betting but, once Ruby Walsh opted for Bellshill, there was just one horse Townend wanted. And, as the yard's challenge began to fray, Al Boum Photo was only getting stronger.

Kemboy had thrown off David Mullins at the first and Ruby pulled up Bellshill after a few ragged leaps before they'd even reached the top of the hill first time round. Then that wretched fall for Patrick and Invitation Only, bringing down Definitly Red with them.

Might Bite and defending champion Native River were making the running, most Irish eyes anchored to a struggling Presenting Percy, Pat Kelly's efforts to become the first man in 90 years to saddle a Gold Cup winner without a seasonal run over fences never looking persuasive.

And Mullins? To begin with, he presumed history was simply keeping him at arm's length again.

"I was just thinking another year of disappointment," he told us. Actually, more than that, an even more profound self-questioning was beginning to ripple within.

"I'd probably got used to the disappointment of never winning it," he revealed.

"Probably resigned myself to that. Lots of people don't win the pinnacle of their sport, but racing has been very good to me. I have a fantastic life in racing. But this is the icing on the cake. I never expected to get it.

"When we buy horses, I try to buy either what I think is a Gold Cup winner or a Champion Hurdle winner. I've been very lucky to win Champion Hurdles.

"But I thought maybe my method of training was more suited to two-milers or that type of thing.

"I sort of wondered was I training them too fast for the Gold Cup. And then, when you turn around and think you've six seconds... you know maybe we just weren't lucky."

Yet, as his hopes went down like skittles now, Mullins's eye kept being drawn back to Townend's yellow silks. To the image of a horse and jockey in palpably easy harmony.

They are long enough together for him to be able to read Townend's body language and what he could see now was a loose rein, an easy rhythm.

As Mullins put it: "I thought, 'we have a life here.'"

Townend's instinct was more bullish. With a circuit to go, he knew they were players, that last mile finally calling into colour the imagination that once carried him around his father Timmy's field, imagining himself as Charlie Swan on Istabraq or Jim Culloty on Best Mate.

As a child, Townend would come sprinting off the school bus to be in time to see the Gold Cup, after which the family pony would be busy.

"He used have a harder week during Cheltenham than any other week of the year," Townend remembered now.

Anyway, this time the pony morphed into a beautiful bay gelding, Al Boum Photo slewing clear up the most famous gradient in racing, Mullins desperately doing the arithmetic.

"I looked up at the winning post, then back at what was coming behind us and said 99 out of 100 (times), he's going to make it this year."

Make it Al Boum Photo did, a small multiple of different debts repaid in so many subtle, nuanced ways. Maybe for Maureen Mullins as much as anyone.

"She nearly came in for a flu vaccination when we had to give it to all of the horses, just in case she missed out," Willie smiled of his remarkable mother.

And somewhere overhead, a quiet man was surely making a racket.

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