The Daragh Ó Conchúir Interview: Family affair the Townends at Mullins Central

It’s been another stunning year for the Townends, with Paul reaching Gold Cup nirvana and Jody battling back bravely to the winner’s enclosure after overcoming a broken back. Though little sister won’t easily let big brother forget he missed her big moment in Galway

The Daragh Ó Conchúir Interview: Family affair the Townends at Mullins Central

It’s been another stunning year for the Townends, with Paul reaching Gold Cup nirvana and Jody battling back bravely to the winner’s enclosure after overcoming a broken back. Though little sister won’t easily let big brother forget he missed her big moment in Galway

They are at either end of their 20s, one approaching his peak with the best job in jump racing, 50 Grade One wins, 10 Cheltenham successes and more than 11 years removed from the Galway Hurdle success that catapulted him into the limelight; the other getting going again after a broken back and further complications threatened to scupper her dreams before announcing her well-being in stunning style with another Galway feature frolic, in the Connacht Hotel Handicap last August.

Paul Townend gets to keep an eye on Jody during the week at Willie Mullins’ Closutton headquarters, though watching the two of them together, it is difficult to imagine the older brother bossing kid sister around.

But then Jody has already exhibited her steel just to be still riding horses so it is no surprise that she holds her own in sibling riffing. Leads the way, if truth be known.

Paul isn’t a fan of Jody’s Baby Shark ringtone and skits that his diminutive sister needs a booster seat to look out over the steering wheel of her car.

She revels in the fact that he was left behind when she registered her first racecourse success on Port Rashid, trained by their father, Tim and insists that Paul was cheesed off not to get the ride back next time out when he was available.

The biggest ripping comes, of course, because of Paul’s decision to leave Galway prior to Jody’s marquee triumph. He struggles manfully to come up with an explanation, goaded throughout by his cackling sidekick, before conceding defeat.

“I was on my way home…”

“He doesn’t have a case!”

“How will I get out of this one? I had to go early!”

Jody is giggling uncontrollably and he is hamming it up.

“I hadn’t room…

“I had to go early and Jody wasn’t ready to come with me…

“I don’t have one…”

And they dissolve into more laughter.

“He got all excited then and he stopped on the way home to watch it,” reveals Jody.

“We were in Birr outside the chipper watching it,” adds Paul. “Going, ‘Fuck.’”

In her interview as she returned to the parade ring, Jody, with a broad grin, told the nation that she had been deserted.

Photographer Liam Healy rang Paul to let him know he’d been hung out to dry but he had seen it. The dig had been delivered and received.

It was a rare misstep in a stunning year for the 29-year-old, who had garnered his second jockeys’ championship a few months earlier in the same week as assuming the mantle as Mullins’ No 1 following Ruby Walsh’s retirement.

There is a catalogue of top-flight success in there too but it is no chore to select the brightest jewel.

Cheltenham is the nirvana of National Hunt, the Gold Cup Shangri-La and he genuinely doubted that it would come his way.

It hadn’t come for Mullins and he’d been trying a lot longer. Guiding and cajoling Al Boum Photo up the hill to finally deliver the prize for the boss after six runner-up finishes was magnificent.

On a personal level, it is still being processed.

There are ambitions and there are dreams and there are far-out fairytales and while Paul Townend has long been acknowledged as an outrageously gifted rider, he just could not fully embrace the notion of joining the greats on the most illustrious roll of honour in jump racing.

“I’d never felt anything like that before. It just brought winning to a whole new level. It’s still a bit of a blur. Even when I watch it back, it’s nearly like watching it as a third person. It was an amazing day.

It was an amazing season. I rode my first century of winners and to be champion jockey again, it just cued it up nicely for what we didn’t know was coming at the end of the season.

That was Walsh’s departure in a blaze of glory, Kemboy turning the tables on an understandably less frisky Al Boum Photo in the Punchestown Gold Cup on what would be the last exhibition of the Kildare pilot’s wondrous talents.

After such a long apprenticeship, Paul’s time had come but he hadn’t thought Walsh would pack it in just yet.

“Not as quick as he did anyway. I knew he couldn’t go on forever. Just as I was getting comfortable in the hot seat, he was always coming back. It was something I’ve always thought about and it’s been a dream. All we need is a bit of luck now.”

He acknowledges that there is more pressure, just by virtue of him having to make the decisions rather than accept the very juicy morsels that fell from Walsh’s table. But he is ready.

“The fact that Ruby didn’t ride a whole lot last season, I was in the hot seat plenty and through injuries, the last couple of seasons he hasn’t been that busy so it hasn’t been a massive change I suppose.

“It’s definitely exciting, especially with all the big guns coming in, that hopefully they’ll be at my disposal through the winter and we can get a few big results out of them.

“It’ll be interesting. Galway was the start. We’d to pick a few. In Killarney I got it wrong. We’re going to get the wrong one sometimes but it’s a nice position to be in to have the choice. It’s going to be different but I’ve been drafted in plenty the last two seasons so hopefully it won’t be a massive change.”

“It has been great watching Paul do so well over the years and I was delighted when he won the Gold Cup and his second champion jockeys’ title,” remarks Jody.

Jody Townend after steering Great White Shark to victory at Galway. Picture: Healy Racing
Jody Townend after steering Great White Shark to victory at Galway. Picture: Healy Racing

They grew up surrounded by horses in Lisgoold, just outside Midleton. When their mother died, it was Caroline – now an ownership executive in HRI – who assumed many of the responsibilities of homemaking and looking after her younger siblings, although only a year older than Paul.

“She has always been like the rock of the family and is always very solid with her advice and guidance,” notes Paul.

Tim is a trainer, his brother Bob was a jockey, Davy Condon is a first cousin who got Paul into Closutton and having had to retire prematurely through injury, is now a key cog of the Gordon Elliott machine.

“I followed in Davy’s footsteps up to Willie’s and Jody seems to be following in mine a bit,” Paul muses.

“Growing up, all I wanted to be was Davy Condon. When he was riding on the track, I was riding in pony races. That pushed me along and it was brilliant guidance for me to have someone to look up to like that, so close.

“Even as an apprentice I got off the ground quick enough on the Flat. My first year in Galway I rode a winner on the Flat. The Galway Hurdle (on Indian Pace) is the standout moment for me. Only a handful of rides over hurdles, a couple of winners and John Kiely entrusted me with a gamble in the Galway Hurdle, which is the most competitive race, in my opinion, of the year.

It was definitely a big springboard and a couple of months down the line I was riding Hurricane Fly in a Grade 1, so I couldn’t complain about the start I had anyway!

“I was watching Paul on the television every day,” Jody reflects. “You’d come home from school, Dad would be sitting down watching the racing. It was all I ever wanted to do.

“When I used be riding ponies at home, we’d be going out with the racehorses. Then I used be following Paul around at the pony races every Sunday. I didn’t really see anything else I wanted to do. I remember for my seventh birthday, all I wanted was to ride a racehorse around the gallops.”

That was around the time Paul left home for Closutton.

“Jody was always my little sister. Out in the country, we entertained ourselves. We always had the ponies and the craic usually revolved around them.”

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins

Now they are both at Mullins Central.

“When I started out racing, it was brilliant he was there,” says Jody. “Going into the weigh room, if I wanted anything he was always just next door. I suppose a lot of people don’t have that. Now in Willie’s, he’d always tell me where I’m going wrong anyway!

“We weren’t together so much growing up ‘cos he moved away so now I’m getting plenty of time to bully him back from when I was smaller.”

“I notice my racing bag got a hell of a lot lighter when Jody started race riding!” comes the quick rejoinder.

Paul is proud of his sister’s achievements to date but gives a hint of what it must be like for family members looking at their loved ones riding in a jumps race when recounting his memories of her first success under Rules.

“I was on short-priced favourite, one of Willie’s down in Tramore. I made the running and Jody picked me off going to the second-last I think. It was brilliant for Jody to win. It was probably easier riding a race against her than watch her riding because I’d never seen it from that side, from what they see when I’m riding. It’s definitely easier to go out and ride yourself rather than watching someone else ride.”

The first win from a first spin between the flags courtesy of King Willie in November 2015 remains a standout memory for Jody.

“It was for Dad in Grennan in Thomastown. It was a family horse we bought as a foal and brought him on. He was after a few runs in handicap hurdles. It’s a day I’ll never forget though it’s a bit of a blur to be honest, thinking back on it. It was unbelievable.”

He was hardly named after you know who?

“I think so, yeah!” laughs Paul.

“The dam was Mullins Hill and he was by Desert King,” explains Jody.

The perfect fit it seems.

After Port Rashid, Jody rode a winner for Mags Mullins in a bumper and people took note. The summer of 2018 was fruitful and she had four winners on the board when disaster struck.

“It was the start of October, I was schooling in Willie’s. The horse stepped at the hurdle and whatever way I landed I fractured a vertebrae in my back and I had to get six screws and two rods put in.

“I got the operation two days after the fall. I was expected to be back in four-to-six months. I was back riding out after four, which was brilliant, but next thing I started getting awful pains down my right leg and my back started weeping out of one of the wounds where they’d made one of the incisions.

“I went back up to the surgeon and they had to clean it out. They sent me home again and about six weeks after that, the whole thing started again.

So they had to take out all the metalwork because the infection had gone in and was living on the metalwork. After that then I had to be on a drip for six weeks, ‘cos the infection was gone into the bone. That was a long six weeks and that was nine months after the fall.

“It was a long old haul but we got over it and then it was on to Galway!”

She had only had her first ride back 20 days earlier but as he had shown before with her brother and cousin, Mullins has no issue with youth once the talent is there and so legged her up on Great White Shark.

“It was amazing for Willie to have so much faith in me to put me up on her. It was only my fourth ride back and I still hadn’t ridden a winner. To have the faith to put me up on such a big stage, the amateur Derby of the year nearly, what a race to win!

Paul and Jody Townsend. Picture: Caroline Norris
Paul and Jody Townsend. Picture: Caroline Norris

“He gave me two sets of instructions going out in case one didn’t work. One of them was if she broke slow, to take my time and come with one long sweep along the outside, not to run into trouble and thankfully it worked out.

“It was amazing. What a thrill! I remember just going by the line and thinking, ‘Did that actually just happen?’ And then everyone starts to come up to congratulate you, walking back into that winner’s enclosure into those crowds, that atmosphere. It was unreal.”

By then, Paul was champion. The race for the title drew more publicity and from very early in the season because of the fact that a woman was in contention for the first time. He is good friends with Rachael Blackmore.

“I’d a couple of good days early in Listowel and I started to gain on Rachael. The banter started from there and it went through the whole season. The fact that Rachael was involved in it, it got a lot of attention from early in the year that it never normally would. It was brilliant because I came out the right side of it. If I’d come out the other side, I’m not sure it would have been as fun! Rachael pushed me the whole way. What she’s done in racing is incredible and fair dues to her.”

With a sister looking to break through in a male-dominated sphere, the importance of role model proving what is possible to aspiring female jockeys as well as owners and trainers is obvious.

“Nina (Carberry) and Katie (Walsh), just to name two, brought it so far but as amateur jockeys. Rachael’s gone out and done it on the big stage as a professional. She’s making a career out of it and it can only be good for racing and for girls coming through, to aspire to someone like Rachael. She’s a brilliant role model for everyone coming through. Her work ethic is unbelievable. She’s brought it to a whole new level so it has to be good.

“There are a couple of girls in England, Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly, and in the Flat in England, there are a lot of them. So it has to be good for racing, to promote the sport as much as anything else.”

Just like Blackmore, Jody isn’t a fan of what she calls “the girl question”, because like any of the women riding, she doesn’t want to be seen to look for or attract extra notice because of her gender. She wants to battle on level pegging. But she acknowledges the boost of seeing the Killenaule native in such demand and producing the goods, at all levels.

“Rachael has set the bar so high. She’s so humble, so good. She’d be at Willie’s chatting away not a bother on her and you’d never think she’s done what she’s done. She is incredible. She’s riding Grade 1 winners there like she’s one of the lads, not a bother. She’s definitely someone to look up to.”

That’s the goal for Jody too, to forge a career as a jockey but first, the 21-year-old needs to be busier. Her family have long tried to push her towards the flat and it is something she is giving more thought to now that Mullins has suggested it too.

Paul is already in the box seat to retain his championship – maintaining fitness will be the key to that – and then there are the dreams of all the major festivals, where he will have first dibs.

Back at home, Tim has eight in for the winter.

“If we got a good amateur now we’d be okay” drawls Paul with a sideways glance.

The explosion of hysterics is mutually simultaneous. Sibling banter lives on.

This article is taken from IRISH RACING YEARBOOK 2020, which is available in all good book shops for €31.95.

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