Paul Townend reflects on making history with Al Boum Photo and explains why being Cheltenham’s top jockey meant so much to him.
In the normal course of events, Paul Townend would be riding in the Aintree Grand National on Saturday, his only concerns revolving around the most famous race of them all.
He’d have been pondering how to deny Tiger Roll an historic third successive National, perhaps allowing himself dream of the elation of crossing the line in front, maybe wondering how the feeling would compare with winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup two years in succession.
But these, as we all know only too well, are not normal times and there will be no Grand National this year. Nor will there be any further Irish jumps action this season. That means there will be no rapturous Punchestown ovation in recognition of Townend’s third jockeys’ championship triumph.
“It’s a surreal time for everyone in the world, whatever walk of life you’re in,” Townend says. “We can only stick to what we’re told to do and hopefully we’ll get back on track as soon as possible.”
It’s a far cry from noise and drama of Gold Cup day at Cheltenham three weeks ago when Townend steered Al Boum Photo into a club only inhabited by National Hunt royalty. Only seven horses – Easter Hero, Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle, L’Escargot, Best Mate, and Kauto Star – had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup more than once before this year’s Festival. Al Boum Photo became the eighth.
He was Townend’s third winner of the day, part three of a stunning treble that lifted the Midleton man past an inspired Barry Geraghty in the race to be the week’s top jockey. The trophy now named after Townend’s predecessor as Willie Mullins’ main jockey, the Cheltenham Festival’s winningmost jockey Ruby Walsh, belonged to the 29-year-old. Not bad for his first season in the top job.
“It seems a long time ago now with everything that’s gone on since,” he says now. “But looking back on it, Gold Cup day was definitely one of the best days of my life. I was shocked after the Gold Cup when I was told I’d mugged Barry for leading jockey because you’re in the bubble there and I thought every time I looked at the telly Barry was winning races. To have caught him on winners was a surprise to me.
Being leading jockey meant a lot to me because, growing up, jockeys were everything to me. I had jockeys on a pedestal; I focused on the jockeys’ side of it when I was a child rather than the horse side. I’d have looked at all the lads down the years being leading rider there and watched them with envy so to have that next to my name is pretty special to me.
It clearly meant plenty to Walsh too, the Irish Examiner pundit becoming emotional as he told ITV viewers that Townend has lost his mam when he was just 15.
“I’ve been told that alright, fair play to him,” Townend says.
“He’s been a huge mentor of mine since I started at Willie’s and a huge supporter and he’s a human being too and it’s nice to see he cares.
“He’s a huge part of the team in Willie’s and I pick his brains plenty. In fairness to him, he’s always there and open to being asked questions. He’s been there, he’s done it all – even if you have an idea in your head, it’s nice to run it by him and get his opinion on it. It’s nice to talk to someone with his experience, it’s invaluable.”
Understandably, Townend holds Al Boum Photo in equally high regard. The racing public don’t see much of the eight-year-old but when he does appear on a racecourse, he tends to deliver. Willie Mullins famously kept hitting the crossbar in his bid to emulate his legendary father Paddy’s achievement in winning the most prestigious prize in jumps racing but he eventually hit a winning formula.
It wasn’t the plan for Al Boum Photo to run just once before the 2019 Gold Cup but an incredibly mild winter meant that’s what he did. And when worked, Mullins knew better than to tamper with the magic potion. A single New Year’s Day run around Tramore as a prep was all that was required.
“It kind of just happened last year with the way the ground was but fair play to Willie, it’s a ballsy move to go back the same route again but it proved the winning formula again,” Townend says.
“It was always going to be a different tactical race this year and he showed he could do it a different way and still win. He’s a great horse.
He could do (it again in 2021). They said going in this year that all the stats were against him, that he couldn’t win a second one but he doesn’t know that and he’ll definitely be at the top of the market, or close to it, again next year. He sets the standard.
That he does. But the nature of sport in general, and racing in particular, is such that thoughts quickly turn to the next big thing, the next superstar.
And Townend might just have ridden him 40 minutes before the Gold Cup when Monkfish emerged victorious from a top-class renewal of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
“The right horses contested the finish and that’s usually the sign of a good race, he’s a really exciting horse,” Townend says with enthusiasm. “What he’s doing over hurdles is only a bonus, he still has a lot of maturing to do, he’s a massive shell of a horse and I think it’s his raw ability that getting him through at the moment. If he can develop on the potential he’s showing, he might just be coming along at the right time over fences to do something special.”
Gold Cup day had begun in strange fashion when Burning Victory cashed in on the last-flight fall of runaway leader Goshen to win the Triumph Hurdle.
“It’s not nice,” Townend admits. “Look, it’s brilliant to win there, and we’ll take every win that we can, but we’ve experienced the other side of it as well so you don’t want to win in those circumstances.”
The “other side of it” was something Townend became all-too-familiar with in the first half of Cheltenham 2020.
Tuesday started badly, wayward jumping seeing Asterion Forlonge wreak havoc in defeat in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. It ended badly too, Benie Des Dieux losing out to Honeysuckle the Mares’ Hurdle, with Walsh critical of Townend for not closing the door on Rachael Blackmore on the turn for home.
“We got beat on Benie Des Dieux but it was a horse race, we were beaten by a very good mare,” Townend points out. “Asterion Forlonge jumped awkwardly in the first, ran a cracking race considering everything he did wrong in the race, Ciliaos Emery ran reasonably ok in the Champion Hurdle and, obviously, we were disappointed Benie got beat.”
Wednesday morning brought more frustration as a late setback ruled Chacun Pour Soi out of the Champion Chase, a race he would surely have won given the absence of Altior and the non-performance of Defi Du Seuil.
“That was probably as big a kick in the stomach as I got during the week to be honest, regardless of how Defi ran. I was really looking forward to him, thought he could be my redemption and then he was out… He was a big bullet to fire.”
Townend and Mullins finally got off the mark in the day two finale, the Champion Bumper, when Ferny Hollow came from off the pace to get the better of well-touted stablemate Appreciate It.
Thursday revolved around two yard favourites, the 12-year-old Faugheen illustrating that age really is just a number when third in the Marsh Novices’ Chase before Min made it fourth time lucky at Cheltenham when winning the Ryanair Chase.
“Everybody focuses on the results at Cheltenham but Min’s CV isn’t too bad either when you go back through it. Everyone is rated on their performances at Cheltenham, he’d kind of got that persona of being a bridesmaid because of that but he’s always been knocking on the door. He deserved a big day in Cheltenham.”
Of course, the fact Cheltenham was on at all was a big talking point in itself. Given how Covid-19 has paralysed Ireland and England in the weeks since, it now seems remarkable that the Festival went ahead. Much of the criticism since directed at the racing industry has come with the benefit of hindsight but Townend was aware of a growing sense of unease as the week progressed.
“We were getting bits of it (the criticism),” he says. “When I landed over there Sunday afternoon I went into the Cheltenham bubble and into my own bubble. The outside world was alien to me in a way but I was getting the updates on my phone and we were getting briefed on the situation before racing every day so we had an idea. But it was only starting at home too; it wasn’t as it is now. As we were there it was unfolding, it wasn’t like it had unfolded. And I thought the way everything was managed over there was as good as they could possibly have done.”