There’s no Christy Moore song for Paul Townend. No five-stanza ballad to belt out in the backroom of a pub deep in racing country, assuming we were still allowed next or near such a paradise.
There’s no catchy chant for the masses to cheer him into the winners’ enclosure, assuming we were still allowed, etc, etc. He is Ireland’s leading jumps jockey and he has all the public profile of a post office middle manager.
He is nobody’s cult hero. His Wikipedia entry is five sentences long and credits him with 12 Cheltenham winners when in fact he has 15. He hasn’t tweeted twice since New Year’s Day 2020. His last Instagram post was a picture of himself with his girlfriend Anna and their dog, under a tree in Kilkenny last August.
“Paul is a fella who was always very quick with a laugh and a joke,” says Patrick Mullins, who has known Townend since he first walked into his father’s yard as a 15-year-old in 2005.
“I would say in the last few years he has got a good bit more serious and mature perhaps. He’s never far off a laugh and it never seems to weigh too heavy on him, the whole thing.
“The fact that he’s number one now instead of number two has made a difference I would say. The fact that we’ve hit the big ‘Three-O’ as well has its impact. Time does that. He would have had a bit of wild streak in him when he originally came up from Cork, he’s a bit different now.”
In 2020, Townend was champion jockey, he won the Gold Cup and was leading rider at Cheltenham. In the past 40 years, only Ruby Walsh (2009) and Tony McCoy (1997) can say they have done that treble in the one season.
But come the end-of-year-gongs, the National Hunt category at the HRI awards went to Rachael Blackmore. Townend became only the fifth jockey in 60 years to win back-to-back Gold Cups, yet he didn’t even make the shortlist for the RTÉ awards.
How to explain all of this?
It would be one thing if he was slaving away up and down the motorways of England, riding hundreds of winners in Warwick and Wincanton and the like. There have always been the Paddy Brennans and Aidan Colemans, good professionals carving out a life in the sport without the folks back home paying them all that much heed.
But Townend is here, winning race after race in a country where a leading jumps jockey is something to be. Ireland is unique in the sporting world, a country of one-name jockeys. McCoy, Ruby, Barry, Davy, Carberry. Nina, Katie and now Rachael. Charlie, Norman and Dunwoody. A country whether the general public can latch on without needing to have their hand held.
Paul Townend is who he is. Respected and appreciated within racing but by no means a crossover star. Partly this is down to the fact that the big time held him at arm’s length through the years when he was riding as the second jockey in Closutton. Walsh was number one when Townend arrived and stayed riding for another 14 years.
Townend was still a teenager when he became second jockey and had his first ride at Cheltenham in 2010. He had a winner for Arthur Moore in 2011 but had to wait until 2015 for his first festival win for Willie Mullins.
And even then, it came in the shadows. Glens Melody was coming to the last a well-held second in the Mares Hurdle when Walsh and Annie Power had one of the most famous falls in Cheltenham history. All anyone wanted to talk about afterwards was the fact that it saved the bookies 50 million quid. The fact that Townend was finally off the mark for his boss was barely an afterthought.
That was the life he had – and he loved it. Mullins was well on his way to becoming the most powerful trainer in racing and the only certainty in the game was that Ruby couldn’t ride them all. The Mullins second string was still a better ride than a lot of trainers’ first string – he won on Wicklow Brave, Penhill, Arctic Fire and Dun Des Genievres when Walsh chose not to ride them.
And of course, Al Boum Photo was the second string when he finally broke the Mullins Gold Cup duck in 2019. Walsh went with Bellshill and had to pull him up before the first circuit was even done. Townend pulled clear up the hill on a horse nobody fancied, winning at 12/1. Biding your time gets easier when those are the consolation prizes.
“Being the number two jockey is easy,” says Patrick Mullins. “You take whatever’s going. You’re never wrong as number two. Whereas no matter how good you are, you’re going to be wrong as number one. Paul won enough races on the second string when Ruby was the man making the choices, so he knows the territory. But you have to be able to handle that.
“I think everyone struggles with that side of it. It’s something you learn to deal with. The great part of this job is that there’s always going to be the chance to get the next one right. I’ve seen Paul make those calls when Ruby was out injured and initially he was quite hard on himself when he got one wrong.
“But now, with more experience and more maturity, he handles it as well as Ruby ever did. The big change is riding the best horses. The second biggest is having to make those decisions when the choices aren’t obvious.”
He has done pretty well so far on that score. Last year, there were 15 races where Mullins had more than one entry and Townend had the choice of what to ride in 11 of them. He rode five winners across the week and the only Mullins winners he didn’t pilot were Concertista and Saint Roi, both of which were in ownership with retained riders, meaning Townend didn’t have an option on either.
Given the riches at his disposal, something will have gone pretty badly wrong if he isn’t the leading rider at Cheltenham again next week. Not all arrangements are set in stone just yet but it looks like he will ride in anything up to 24 races. He will go off on the favourite in at least seven and the second favourite in probably another six.
The decisions will be straightforward in some cases, a nightmare in others. Mullins has the first three in the betting in Thursday’s Ryanair, for instance. Nice headache to have, but a headache nonetheless. Inside the Mullins winning machine, Walsh is now an assistant trainer. As is Patrick, as is David Casey. There’s no shortage of chat, no dearth of opinions.
“Paul would be in the yard three mornings a week, riding work and schooling horses,” Patrick Mullins says. “Ruby is still in most mornings, although he sometimes has other commitments with his media stuff. So Paul obviously is discussing things a lot more with Ruby, as to where a horse might go, how they might run. But since Ruby is still there, there hasn’t been a massive shift in how everything operates day to day and week to week.
“Paul’s input is obviously more influential now than it was before. Personality is huge. The part of Ruby’s make-up that never got enough credit was his diplomacy. I know people have Ruby down as a very straight talker and he is, but he’s very diplomatic too. Paul Nicholls has gone through plenty of number one jockeys since Ruby left, remember.
“And Willie is not straightforward to work with. He changes his mind, he leaves things to the last minute. And when you’re the number one jockey in the yard, you have to be able to roll with that and you need that diplomacy to be able to find your course through it. Paul has learned that from Ruby. He is generally quite a laid back fella and he’s not afraid to laugh at himself. That kind of attitude probably suits the job, working with Willie.”
Closutton is what made him. Townend joined the Mullins yard less than a year after his mother died from cancer. He has lived around the Carlow/Kilkenny border longer than he lived at home in Cork. He spent his 20s learning at the hands of two of the all-time gold-plated legends of the sport. There wasn’t room for him to become a star turn, even if he’d wanted to.
Townend is number one now and has quietly assumed the mantle. The job is ruthlessly simple – you have the best horses, go and win with them. If he stays healthy, he will be champion jockey for the fourth time in a couple of months, something neither Geraghty, Davy Russell nor Paul Carberry ever managed.
If all the plans come together in the Cotswolds, he could break Walsh’s single festival record of seven wins next week. He may well even win a third Gold Cup in a row, which would make him only the fourth jockey in history to do the hat-trick. Maybe then there’ll be a song.
Guitar at the ready, Christy.
Born: Midleton, Co Cork
Champion jockey: 2010/11, 2018/19, 2019/20
Cheltenham wins (15): What A Charm (2011), Glen’s Melody, Irish Cavalier, Wicklow Brave (all 2015), Penhill, Arctic Fire (both 2017), Penhill, Laurina (both 2018), Duc des Genievres, Al Boum Photo (both 2019); Ferny Hollow, Min, Burning Victory, Monkfish, Al Boum Photo (all 2020)
Best chances at Cheltenham 2021:
Tuesday: Appreciate It (Supreme)
Wednesday: Gaillard Du Mesnil (Ballymore), Monkfish (Brown Advisory), Chacum Pour Soi (Champion Chase);
Thursday: Allaho/Min/Melon (Ryanair), Hook Up (Mares’ Novice Hurdle); Stattler (Albert Bartlett), Al Boum Photo (Gold Cup), Billaway (Foxhunters), Colreevy (Mares’ Chase)