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Townend filling boots of Ruby

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DELIGHT: Jockey Paul Townend celebrates after winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo
at the Cheltenham Racing Festival in March. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

DELIGHT: Jockey Paul Townend celebrates after winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo at the Cheltenham Racing Festival in March. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

DELIGHT: Jockey Paul Townend celebrates after winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo at the Cheltenham Racing Festival in March. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

How do you go about filling boots that simply can't be filled? That was the question which Paul Townend was left to ponder on this day 12 months ago, when Ruby Walsh shocked the racing world and retired from the saddle, leaving a trail of high-profile winners in his rear-view mirror.

Townend knew the day would eventually come when he would take over racing's most prized position as first jockey to Willie Mullins and the Cork pilot has delivered in sensational style to quickly leave his own calling card.

His first real day "in the limelight" came at Auteuil in mid-May, when Benie Des Dieux lowered the colours of Francois Nicolle's brilliant mare De Bon Coeur in the French Champion Hurdle - and he has achieved much success in the year that followed.

The 29-year-old was crowned leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival in March, before coasting to his third Irish champion jumps-jockeys' title with few hiccups along the way. Not a bad 12 months, considering the pressure of trying to replace the irreplaceable.

Reflect

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Former great Ruby Walsh. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Former great Ruby Walsh. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Former great Ruby Walsh. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Townend is no different than all elite sportspeople with his goalposts always moving as he chases the next hurdle and bids to soar higher than before, but the opportunity to sit back and meaningfully reflect is something which rarely takes place.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that Townend "went from 100 miles an hour to nothing" and while a few calves grazing around his new house in Kilkenny are keeping him and Italian girlfriend Anna busy, there's been plenty of time to take stock.

The Lisgoold native likes to "keep himself to himself" but as stable jockey to Mullins - who he joined in Transition Year - he realises the added weight on his shoulders so his accomplishments make it all the sweeter.

"Like a footballer going to a new club, if you can get off to a good start, it takes a bit of pressure off you - and you can relax into it a bit better, a bit easier. We carried momentum with us throughout the year, which is a big help," says Townend.

"It was a big year for me personally, stepping into the new role. And I really wanted to be champion jockey again this year, just with the position that I was in. I thought that it was important for me to do that.

"I'd love to be champion jockey every year and that'll be the aim again, if we can get back up and racing during the summer here, to have a good summer, that's when you can rack up the number of winners."

Townend has had ample opportunity to watch Cheltenham reruns but his natural inclination is to focus on the latter part of the week, given that 13 races had elapsed before he got himself on the scoresheet in Wednesday's finale, with a brilliant steer on Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper.

The day previous he had felt the wrath of Walsh and Mullins, and had his race riding questioned, after Rachael Blackmore stole a march aboard Honeysuckle to go up in the inner, and leave Festival banker Benie Des Dieux with too much to do, in the Mares' Hurdle.

Having parted ways with social media despite keeping his accounts active - "there's a lot of negativity on it and I just decided I couldn't be arsed with it any more to be honest" - Townend only learned of Walsh's harsh words when things had cooled down.

"I'm not active on social media anymore so I don't see that, I don't go looking for that, because I don't think there's any positive to come from it. I suppose I've witnessed that off-camera plenty throughout my career too, so it was no huge shock to my system," he chuckles, about a bollicking from Walsh.

Partnerships are tested more in defeat than victory but Mullins' faith rarely deviates, even in his darkest hours - and that fires confidence that he can continue to deliver the goods under the tutelage of an equine genius.

"You can judge a person best when things aren't going for you. When things are going great, everyone is happy and it's easy to get along with people, but it's when things go wrong that it tests the true character of someone," he says.

"He's always had my back. He'll let you know if you've made a mistake but he won't hold it against you. He'll let you know his opinion and move on from it and won't hold a grudge, which is a huge help.

"If you make a mistake, you're human and that's the way he is. His knowledge is unbelievable. He does a lot of his training just on his pure eye for things and instinct. It could sound completely bonkers when he says it first, but he has a knack of getting it right.

"It amazes me every single day, he'll come out with something that you think 'Jesus, he's cracked or where is he seeing this from?' but 99 times out of 100, he's correct in what he sees and what he does."

Mullins is of the opinion that Townend is "even better under pressure" and he often does himself no favours by inviting pressure, although his ability to balance motions, given the topsy-turvy nature of racing, is second to none.

"I seem to have a habit of putting myself under a bit of pressure, I suppose. I never keep anything simple, so I wouldn't mind if I cut that out. Pressure is funny, but a certain amount of pressure - if it's focussed the right way - can be a help.

"The turnaround in racing is so quick, with both success and defeat. You can't ride a winner and go out in the next race and still be in the moment of riding the last winner, you have to park the winner as much as you park the loser.

"A lot of that comes down to the man I'm working for, Willie will park it as well and he doesn't hold a grudge.

"If you do something wrong, there'll be a word about it but you move on and do the next job. That's where the backing of someone as important as Willie is massive."

That support helped to produce an extraordinary three-timer on the final day at the Cotswolds, which left him in disbelief that he had pipped Barry Geraghty for top jockey with five winners - bringing his Festival tally to 15 after 12 visits - spearheaded by Al Boum Photo.

The horse that sent him to the brink and delivered his darkest day in racing, when a bizarre series of events saw Townend mistakenly swerve the final fence when looking a winner in the 2018 Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival, had delivered yet again.

Were it not for owner Joe Donnelly, and a Cork man sticking with another Rebel, staying loyal after "probably the longest night I ever put down", his dreams may not have become reality and he is forever grateful.

"He holds a special place in my heart, we've probably been through every single emotion possible and back around again. He's a special horse and I'm very lucky that the Donnellys stood by me after that time in Punchestown - and I'm glad I was able to repay them with two Gold Cups.

"I spoke to Joe the next morning after Punchestown and he assured me that it was alright, everything was fine and that I'd be riding his horses again, that he wasn't going to be holding it against me and to go ahead and do my job that day the best I could.

"That was a huge judge of character from him as well, fair play to him and he deserved the success that he's had because of that."

More pressure will come when Al Boum Photo bids to become the first to land the Gold Cup hat-trick since Best Mate (2002-04) next March - and Townend doesn't buy any argument that the eight-year-old has not endeared himself to the public, like past champions, due to his light campaigns

"Best Mate was campaigned similarly, he was rarely seen. Al Boum Photo has one place to perform, which is the Gold Cup - and it seems to be working for him. Different horses, different regimes.

"It might be hard to bring another horse that might be a bit gross to Cheltenham on the back of one run, it might be hard to get him fit, but he does plenty at home and it works for him. Why change what isn't broken?

"The fact that he's done it two completely different ways is a help now as well, they were two completely different Gold Cups that he's won, so he's quite versatile. I suppose they can't say the first one was a fluke, when he went and backed it up."

Landmark successes, like jump-racing's blue riband, always bring his late mother to mind, having lost her to cancer when he was just 15. Along with his sister Jody - an amateur with a bright future, having landed the GPT in Galway last July for Mullins - they are keeping her memory alive.

With restrictions in place after his Gold Cup success, he didn't get to properly toast Al Boum Photo and plans to visit Butcher Steakhouse in Kilkenny and enjoy his patented steak and red wine after a triumph, of which there have been many.

Celebrating

"We didn't really get a chance to celebrate this year, because we weren't allowed out. When things quieten down a bit for the summer, we'll reflect on it and we'll do plenty of celebrating. We'll make up for that," he says.

Racing is likely to take place behind closed doors when it resumes, and Townend has no issue with that. Given his thirst for success and that he has a supreme trainer providing him with the best ammunition, he's itching for a return to the winner's enclosure.

"The day after the euphoria of Cheltenham I was racing behind closed doors at Navan.

"I don't mind it at all because once you get out on the track, it's the same thing. It's strange without owners or trainers being there, but you can get on with your job.

"You still have the same job to do. They ran it very successfully and I didn't mind it at all.

"I appreciate how lucky I am to be honest, it still feels surreal to me and I'll never take it for granted.

"It's an opportunity that I've been given and fortunate enough to get, it's not something I've deserved or that's promised to anyone.

"Only a very few are fortunate enough to have the opportunity, it's something I definitely don't take for granted every day."

With an attitude like that, it's easy to see why it's been a seamless transition.

And while Cinderella's slipper may not be a perfect fit just yet, Townend is showing all the right signs that he can fill the void like no other.