Townend ready to take centre stage after Ruby exit
Few have served an apprenticeship quite like that of Paul Townend and the Cork jockey is ready to remain at centre stage as he picks up the mantle as Willie Mullins' number one rider following last week's retirement of Ruby Walsh.
There was no big change on Thursday morning when Walsh didn't arrive in Closutton for work as normal having hung up his saddle the day previous following Kemboy's epic Punchestown Gold Cup victory.
The day when Townend ascended the throne has been coming for some time having become familiar with being thrust into the spotlight in recent seasons as Walsh endured a horrible catalogue of injuries.
The 28-year-old steps into the top job as reigning Irish champion jumps jockey after landing his second crown and he is at the top of his game, having ridden 109 Irish winners in the campaign just gone as well as helping himself to five Grade One victories and celebrating two recent Cheltenham Festival winners.
His first championship was secured eight years ago but there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then and he's matured into one of the weighing room's most reliable pilots in the intervening period.
"Ruby was unfortunate to miss a lot of the last two seasons so I've been in and out of the hot seat plenty of times," Townend said. "You need a lot of luck to be champion jockey, a lot of luck throughout the whole season, which we thankfully had.
"It's nice to finally be here at the end of the season and be crowned champion jockey. I definitely appreciate it a bit more than last time I won it. I thought I had the game mastered by then and obviously I was foolish to think so.
"I hit the ground running at the start of the year and Ruby very kindly stepped aside and let me ride a lot of the horses. With the backing of Willie and the owners, it meant I was in good position to be champion jockey.
"Working for Willie is probably as good a job that's going in National Hunt racing in the world. But it's still a job. I've been very fortunate to be riding a lot of the horses over the last ten years, it's still a job that has to be done."
There is a lot of symmetry between Walsh's 23-year working relationship with Mullins and Townend's decade-long association with the Closutton maestro and the Midleton native has learned valuable lessons as understudy to one of the greatest jockeys to ever saddle up.
"He's been massive to my career. He's guided me since I was an apprentice on the Flat. He was always very fair to me and it's been a privilege to work alongside him, especially someone you've so much respect for," Townend said of Walsh.
"You need confidence in this game and winners give you confidence. It's probably been a nice transition and if we can get half the success Ruby has had, we'll be doing well. Hopefully we can just slip in there now and ride plenty of winners."
Rewind back a year and Townend was the focal point after an inexplicable misjudgement at the last cost Al Boum Photo Grade One success at Punchestown but rather than let that error define him, he has risen above it in sensational style.
It was fitting that the Townend-ridden Al Boum Photo should be the one to provide Mullins with his first Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in March and the Carlow handler expects a seamless transition and further success after Walsh passed the torch.
"He worked very hard while Ruby was off and it paid off - he definitely deserved the title. He has played second fiddle to Ruby so often and, when he was still in front halfway through the season, I said I would let him have a good crack at it," Mullins said.
"Barring injury, I knew he'd be there or thereabouts. It's more responsibility on Paul but I'd be hoping Paul can build on that now and win a few more. He's got all the talents one needs to be a multiple champion jockey."
Townend's victory denied a fairytale jockeys' title for the trailblazing Rachael Blackmore - who finished with a record 91 winners as well as two Cheltenham Festival successes and her first Grade One triumphs - but he was pushed to the pin of his collar by the Tipperary rider.
He has no issue with being the one to spoil the party, however, and expects Blackmore to be back next season and eager to create history.
"I don't think she's done too bad for herself! Rachael has definitely made me work for it and she definitely is buying me dinner!" he quipped.
"We're great friends and great rivals. What she's done in such a short space of time is incredible. Nothing was handed to her and she went out and earned everything she got. She's had an unbelievable season and there's no doubt she'll be pushing us again next season."
It's been another record-breaking season for the all-conquering Mullins as the 62-year-old surpassed the legendary Tom Dreaper - trainer of the mighty Arkle - to be crowned champion jumps trainer for a staggering 13th time with his thirst for winners greater than ever.
Donal McInerney was crowned champion conditional rider for the second successive year while Mullins' son Patrick continues to defy difficulties with his height to be named champion amateur for an 11th time.
Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud - which had a disappointing Punchestown Festival - edged out JP McManus as champion owners, while Lisa O'Neill's 22 winners secured her champion lady amateur rider once again.