Out of the Cheltenham shadows and into the Festival fire for Townend

Yahoo Sport UK
Paul Townend celebrates with the trophy after riding Al Boum Photo in Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup at the 2019 Festival
Paul Townend celebrates with the trophy after riding Al Boum Photo in Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup at the 2019 Festival

With Ruby Walsh’s legend consigned to history, Paul Townend is ready to shine in his leading role at Cheltenham this year, writes Brad West.

For what feels like forever, the legendary Walsh led the line for Willie Mullins’ stable – and spectacularly delivered.

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The County Kildare jockey’s achievements at Prestbury Park almost need no introduction, with a staggering 59 wins and 11 leading rider awards to his name.

But now, having delivered Grade One victories at Cheltenham for Mullins seemingly at will, the pressure is all on Townend.

Last year saw a perfect symmetry as the changing of the guard was being ushered in, with Townend registering his two biggest Cheltenham victories to date on Duc Des Genievres in the Arkle Chase before finally winning the Gold Cup for Mullins with Al Boum Photo.

This, just as Walsh bowed out with victory himself in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

It was a tale of redemption for Townend after he had let victory on the same horse a year prior in the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown.

“To repay them with a Gold Cup is the best feeling in the world,” the then-28-year-old jockey said.

“You dream of winning a Gold Cup when you grow up. I can guarantee it’s as good as you dream it’s going to be.”

And following Walsh’s retirement in May last year, Townend took over the mantle as Mullins’ leading man – something he has undertaken with a great deal of success.

Race wins have come by the bucketload, lots of them Grade Ones including the Champion Chase with recently retired phenomenon Un De Sceaux at Punchestown Festival.

Not that Mullins is worried about how his star man will handle a first Cheltenham front and centre, having stated Townend’s move to top dog was never as much of a leap as many had suggested.

“It wasn’t like he [Townend] was coming from another yard or another environment. Ruby was injured so much and Paul has been here so long,” Mullins said.

“He was champion the year Ruby was out [2011] and so was used to riding all the top ones.

“We didn’t think of it as a transition. We thought it’s the same as Ruby was injured and Paul steps in. The only difference is Paul might have felt a bit more pressure himself.

“We’re very happy the way things are going. He has a great strike rate. He’s been riding fantastically. I just say to him ‘keep injury clear: stay right for the big meetings’.”

But, Cheltenham is another beast entirely and, as Mullins himself alludes to there, the pressure of being number one will be intensely on Townend.

While he may be odds-on favourite to claim the top jockey prize for the very first time, there is a hungry cast of talent around him itching to stop that becoming a reality.

Rivals Davy Russell and Rachael Blackmore are widely tipped for impressive weeks, with the latter a particularly intriguing opponent.

Having earned her first two winners at Cheltenham last year in one of the stories of the Festival, she has enjoyed a remarkable year since and boasts an enviable book of rides including Notebook and Honeysuckle.

But, of course, Townend now has the pick of Mullins’ stable – one of the benefits of the added pressure.

He will certainly be relishing the chance to double up with Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, while he will also have the ride of Benie Des Dieux who Mullins described as the best mare he has ever trained earlier this year.

That’s not to mention Chacun Pour Soi or Min.

And then, there’s Townend’s Cheltenham pedigree, with the 29-year-old having won ten times at the Festival.

So, while Townend may be under more scrutiny this year, it would be wise to expect him to thrive under it.

 

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