Monday 16 September 2019

Townend is loving life at the top of his profession

Paul Townend: ‘I’ve never before heard of a championship being talked about so much in December.’ Photo: Healy Racing
Paul Townend: ‘I’ve never before heard of a championship being talked about so much in December.’ Photo: Healy Racing

Daragh ó Conchúir

The suggestion that everyone is rooting against him in the race to be champion jockey elicits a knowing chuckle from Paul Townend.

He is hardly Ivan Drago to Rachael Blackmore's Rocky Balboa, but most are cheering for Blackmore. That's fine with him, understanding as he does that Blackmore's already history-making feats and bid to be the first woman to top the charts is good for racing.

Having long since posted a record score for a female jockey in Ireland or Britain for a season under NH Rules - it is worth emphasising too that her 67 winners posted prior to racing at Thurles yesterday, with four months of the campaign still to run, has been achieved exclusively against the professionals over obstacles, whereas the majority of the 41 set by Nina Carberry were registered in bumpers confined to fellow amateur jockeys - Blackmore being in contention has made the championship a talking point earlier than ever before.

So early, in fact, that the reigning champion, Davy Russell still has plenty of time to be a factor. But for now, the talk is of a two-horse race.

"It's such fun," remarks a smiling Townend. "I've never before heard of a championship being talked about so much in December. Even from Listowel on when I started catching her, it was going and going. Fair play to her. I've a sister (Jody) riding myself and what Rachael is doing for girls in the sport is unreal. We're all living around together and there's a banter side of it. We're always slagging each other on winners but at the same time, we'd be the first ones to congratulate each other."

Blackmore halved the deficit between them to two (69-67) when denying Townend on the double at Naas on Wednesday, before reducing the margin to the minimum when steering Honeysuckle to victory for Henry de Bromhead in the mares' novice hurdle at Thurles yesterday.

"We were invited to dinner in Kilkenny (that) night. After one of the winners, I told her, 'Well done, but you're off the guest list for dinner later on', but she still showed up."

There are few sports like it, where the rivalry is fierce but within seconds of crossing the finishing line, the vanquished is patting the conqueror on the back.

"It's competitive on the track but we all run the same risks every time we go out," Townend explains. "Everyone wants to be riding the winners but it's a close-knit family inside the weigh room."

Townend is a former champion, having taken the honours at the end of the 2010/'11 campaign, when he was just 20.

It was just the latest landmark in the most meteoric of rises, and though he hasn't added to his haul of championship titles, the 28-year-old from Midleton already boasts a stunning tally of 658 winners in Ireland alone, 45 Grade Ones and eight Cheltenham Festival successes.

A son of the trainer Tim Townend and nephew of jockey Bob, Paul also had two grandfathers who were trainers. He quickly signalled his intent to follow in Uncle Bob's footsteps and learned the ropes on the pony-racing circuit.

First cousin Davy Condon, who ironically is now a key member of Gordon Elliott's team, was at Willie Mullins' and got his young relative in the door. Then Condon decided to move to England and Richie Kiely reverted to amateur status, so Townend moved up the ladder. When undisputed number one Ruby Walsh got injured, Mullins didn't hesitate to turn to the neophyte.

After the Seamus O'Donnell-trained The Chip Chopman got Townend off the mark at Limerick in June 2007, the then 16-year-old added another 35 triumphs before the season was over. He recorded his first major success on Indian Pace for John Kiely in the Galway Hurdle just a few weeks before his 18th birthday and at the end of 2008, was bagging what was already a third Grade One prize in the appropriately-named Future Champion Novice Hurdle on subsequent world-record Grade One holder, Hurricane Fly.

Christmas has been good to him. In subsequent years the Fly, Golden Silver, Blackstairmountain, Unaccompanied, Arvika Ligeonniere, Twinlight, Saturnas and Footpad provided top-flight successes at Leopardstown.

"I've had a good time there. Ruby was still riding for Paul Nicholls when I started so he'd have been over in Kempton for the King George, and gone over a few times for Willie. There's such an amount of racing on and the amount of horses we have running, we've been lucky enough to nick a few."

There were plenty who thought Mullins was making a mistake when he gave the 18-year-old the nod a decade ago, but mistakes aren't really the maestro's forte. Still, one imagines the pressure must have been unbearable, right?

"I'm a firm believer that I was probably naïve to a lot of it. I'd the confidence of youth and it was snowballing at the time for me. And I knew the horse would go well as well. I was riding him out every day at home and as it turns out, if I was getting bet on him, there'd have been something wrong."

Why hasn't he had more titles? Because he is number two to 12-time champion Ruby Walsh at Closutton. Why has he achieved so much? Same answer. There are times when it has to have been frustrating but if you needed reminding of the depth of Townend's character as well as talent, it arrived last April at Punchestown.

On the opening day of the festival, he was hit with a 21-day ban for dangerous riding when pulling the leading Al Boum Photo off course approaching the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase, having thought he heard a shout to avoid the obstacle. His action forced Finian's Oscar and Robbie Power out of the race.

Townend apologised for the "genuine mistake" but the drama brought a lot of unwanted attention, and unwarranted negative commentary. It was difficult but Townend responded in superlative fashion, winning the first two races the next day on the way to recording a treble.

Going back over that old ground holds no attraction for him now, other than to emphasise his appreciation for Mullins' backing. This was illustrated by his deployment in Auteuil where he was eligible to ride while still suspended because there was no racing in Ireland, and where he kept up the winning habit, both for the boss and for Ross O'Sullivan.

"As I served my suspension I was available to ride in France a couple of days as Ruby was out. I got a couple of good winners over there. That's what I mean about the backing of a man like Willie.

"When the season started, I got on a couple of quick winners which got me off the mark. They kept the ball rolling and the confidence up I suppose. They were well-timed." Keeping the momentum going was vital and he is riding winners at a staggering 26 per cent strike rate in Ireland at the moment, the opportunities increased initially by the injury-enforced absences of Walsh.

"Ruby's misfortune obviously led to me being in a good position. I could never dream how well this season is going for me. I'd a very strong summer and carried that through into the winter. There's a long way to go yet but I couldn't be happier with the way it's going so far.

"The summer is about numbers. There's a couple of big races like your Galway Plate, Galway Hurdle and Kerry National, things like that. They're big pots but they're not Grade Ones, they're handicaps. It's about racking up the numbers in the summer and the quality really comes through, even though they're running through the summer now, the depth of the quality comes out in the winter."

Winter leads to spring and for the Mullins' battalion that means Cheltenham. When Townend actually got off the mark at Prestbury Park in 2011, it was for Arthur Moore on What A Charm in the Fred Winter Hurdle. Last March yielded two more winners, from the more usual source, on Penhill in the Stayers' Hurdle and Laurina in the Mares' Novice Hurdle. It could have been even better as he had to make do with the runner-up slot in the Champion Chase on Min, the Ryanair Chase on Un De Sceaux and in the Champion Hurdle on Melon by an agonising neck.

"I was second in two of the championship races earlier on in the week so to win one of the main four in the Stayers' - it was my first time winning one of them and it was nice to get that as well on a horse that's been very good to me. He won the novice hurdle the year before. I'm not sure who the last horse was that won the Albert Bartlett and went on to win the Stayers' Hurdle, and to do that on his first run of the season was remarkable."

The unseasonably dry weather is playing havoc with trainers' attempts to get their best horses out and could put a different slant than normal on the Christmas racing. As Townend notes, "it will make for an interesting second half of the season", where punters will enjoy seriously competitive racing.

For now though, Leopardstown is the land of opportunity, even with Walsh back in the fold. And if he is not the people's choice in the race to be top jockey, he'll get over it. He's in the race. Life is good.

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