Big interview with the man set to ride Douvan and Faugheen over Christmas
Richard Forristal talks to Willie Mullins' supersub rider
To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, Richard Forristal talks to supersub jockey Paul Townend
If jockeys are ultimately judged on the extent to which they seize the opportunities that come their way, Paul Townend would surely rank among the very best.
At this stage, that might seem like a pretty unimaginative statement of the obvious about someone who operates as second-in-command to Ruby Walsh on Willie Mullins’ army of equine galacticos. However, it has been ever thus.
Roll the clock back to July 2008, a month that Townend began as a 17-year-old without a single jumps victory to his name. He ended it as a Galway Hurdle-winning rider, having been entrusted with the mount on the fancied Indian Pace for Ballybrit legend John Kiely.
Townend didn’t ride another winner over jumps until November, yet, by now 18, he ended that month having steered a certain Hurricane Fly to a famous Royal Bond Novice Hurdle coup on his first outing in a Grade 1 for Mullins.
Like Kiely, Mullins saw something in Townend that prompted him to trust the young rider despite the relative enormity of what was at stake. His faith was duly rewarded at Fairyhouse and has been as a matter of routine ever since.
By the end of 2008, all of a sudden, the 3lb-claiming Townend had ridden 25 winners over jumps and combined with Hurricane Fly to plunder a second Grade 1 at Leopardstown.
Walsh, who had missed Fairyhouse after rupturing his spleen at the Cheltenham November meeting, went to Chepstow on that occasion to ride in the Welsh National.
Those six months, then, were a snapshot of what was to come. When Walsh is injured or unavailable, Townend gets the nod from the all-conquering champion trainer. Invariably, he delivers.
He certainly enhanced his reputation as a safe pair of hands when caressing the mighty Faugheen to last month's barnstorming reappearance triumph in the Morgiana Hurdle and then galvanising Total Recall to glory in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.
“Going back to that first time Ruby got injured [in 2008], things went right for me,” Townend reflects. “If they hadn’t gone right, for whatever reason, things could have ended up a lot different.
“Even Faugheen this time, the day after Ruby got hurt, it was a huge relief when he got over the line. It got the ball rolling and we were off to a good start again.
"At Newbury, everything fell right as well. It's gas how easy it can be to ride even in those big handicaps when you're on the right horse. I remember looking up after jumping a couple of fences and Whisper was in front of me and American was on my inside, and Regal Encore [third] was on my outside.
"Everything fell into place and even though I was worried when Whisper went past me two out it gave me something to aim at."
Townend speaks of his fate in a passive sense. As someone who has morphed seamlessly from a precocious teenage sensation into one of the most dependable and mature big-race riders around, that is merely a reflection of his humility.
Luck plays its part, of course, but he is the antithesis of a flash in the pan and has owned his own destiny in as much as it is possible to do so. Droll in his delivery, he lacks ego and his riding style and demeanour are understated and straightforward.
Granted, there have been times when the crumbs that fall from the table in Closutton haven’t been as plentiful or wholesome as they are right now.
Still, at every remove since Townend emerged as a promising apprentice in 2007, the fusion of a modest outlook and flagrant talent has served him well.
“It can be frustrating, and there was a spell the season before last when things got quiet,” he recalls.
“I broke my ankle that November, and then I only rode a couple of winners over the course of a few months. I didn’t feel I was doing anything differently but Willie never turned his back on me. That loyalty is massive for your confidence.”
“That’s the beauty of the position I'm in,” he says. “I hadn’t been going well and the next thing, Ruby gets hurt and I’m riding Douvan and Yorkhill.”
The same season, Townend teamed up regularly with Rebecca Curtis in Britain. Was he ever tempted to spread his wings or entertain offers from elsewhere?
“You’d be surprised,” he responds candidly. “There weren’t exactly people going around offering me full-time positions. It’s not easy for anyone in this game when things aren’t going your way. You can get left behind very quickly.”
That much is true even for someone with the calibre to be crowned champion jockey at the tender age of 20 in 2011, but Townend is possessed of an even temperament. While not every rider manages so fluidly the contrasting dynamics of being promoted from second in line to first-choice rider, he embraces the heightened expectation.
“There is more pressure when you're riding the first strings for someone like Willie,” he admits, “but a race is a race. You can overthink things too.
“You approach the race the same way and the only difference is that you might be going there with a better chance, so that's more exciting. You have to channel that energy positively.
“Besides, Willie’s second strings would be first strings in a lot of other yards and their owners think of them as first strings, so I’m used to riding at a competitive level in big races as well.”
Townend’s Friday double on Penhill and Arctic Fire last March took his Cheltenham Festival haul to six. Still just 27 years of age, he has amassed a whopping 35 Grade 1s.
The best “flapping” rider of his generation, he is a son of small-scale handler Tim and a first cousin of Davy Condon. They hail from east County Cork, a fanatical point-to-point hinterland, and such a cultured grounding ensured he would never get too carried away.
Shortly before he left home to join Mullins’ yard as a 15-year-old, Townend had the misfortune to lose his mother Josephine to cancer, a trauma that doubtless shaped his character. It’s maybe no wonder he looked all grown up by the time we got to see him.
“That was hard, but I like to think I might have a little help from above,” he muses.
“Between pony racing and then moving to Willie’s, I had something to focus on to help me forget what was hurting, so in a way my mother dying probably made me want to succeed even more, because racing was taking my mind off things.
“Going into racing, even if you're an apprentice, you're taking on grown men, so you have to grow up quickly. Mentally, what happened with my mother probably made me realise that, if something goes wrong with racing, I can come home and leave it outside the back door.”
Perspective, indeed. On Sunday, having plumped for Djakadam at Punchestown rather than Un De Sceaux at Cork, Townend got a taste of what it’s like to suffer a first-class setback.
“I know now how Ruby feels week in, week out,” he quips, “and I’m sitting there with a smile on my face thinking, 'You go where you want, I’ll pick up the pieces!’”
For the next couple of months, that right will be his privilege. It’s an honour that Townend appreciates, but it is also one that he has indisputably earned.
“I look around at the pictures in my sitting room,” he ponders, “pictures of Hurricane Fly and Quevega and so on, and I know that a lot of people might only sit on one horse like those in their lifetime and say they were lucky to do so.
“I’ve been able to sit on any amount of them. To ride the horses I’ve been lucky to ride in the last few weeks is what every jockey wants, so I've been fortunate. It’s why any jockey is a jockey.”
Townend's Christmas treats
“Christmas is still a long way away and we were only a couple of days from Sandown and didn’t get there, but you’d be buzzing about Douvan getting back.
“I’m not sure how else to put it, but Faugheen felt like the dog’s b******s at Punchestown, so I can’t wait to throw my leg over him again.
“Yorkhill could go anywhere – that’s the level of ability he has. He has such a big engine but he's quirky, so you don’t know what you're going to get with him.
“When I rode him at Aintree, he ran away with me for two miles and still managed to pull out more when he heard them coming. We don’t know where the ability stops with him. I ride him in a good bit of his work and he seems to be all right, so you’d have to be looking forward to him.”
Five career-defining rides
Total Recall, 2017 Ladbrokes Trophy
With the weight of history and expectation on his back, Townend was superlative. He and his willing partner refused to be intimidated when Whisper crossed them two out and they crept up the inside at the elbow when the door was left ajar. Townend had to be strong to overhaul the Davy Russell-ridden runner-up but he had timed his run to a nicety.
Douvan, 2016 Doom Bar Maghull Novices' Chase
Having been carted with by Yorkill en route to victory in the preceding race, the pressure had cranked up a notch by the time Townend threw his leg over this 2-13 shot. In the event, though, Ruby Walsh’s deputy displayed the unflappable authority so synonymous with the man himself, confirming to the British racing public that the young pretender is equipped to cope with the demands of riding high-profile horses on the big stage.
Arctic Fire, 2017 Randox Health County Hurdle
Willie Mullins’ training performance in bringing the classy hurdler back from 418 days off to carry top weight to victory stole the headlines but Townend also excelled, guiding Arctic Fire through from the rear to pounce late and wide. They appeared on the scene approaching the final flight and Townend had conserved just enough energy to chin L’Ami Serge.
Hurricane Fly, 2010 Rabobank Champion Hurdle
Hurricane Fly’s Cheltenham debut had been delayed for a second successive year and the diminutive rising star hadn’t been seen since his towering reputation took a knock behind Solwhit in the 2009 Morgiana Hurdle. Five months later, Townend, who had a fine rapport with the horse, conspired to exact revenge at Punchestown. He coaxed his tenacious partner’s head in front on the line to thwart Solwhit in a thriller.
Indian Pace, 2008 Guinness Galway Hurdle
The ride that first thrust Townend into the public consciousness after he was plucked from relative obscurity to partner the well-backed Indian Pace. If the 5lb claimer was in any way fazed by the enormity of the opportunity, it didn’t show. He coolly weaved his way through to challenge approaching the final flight before Indian Pace asserted in the shadow of the post. It was a composed turn that bore all the hallmarks with which we would soon become more familiar.
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