“I thought of her straightaway,” Paul Townend says after memories of his mother filled his head as soon as he won the Gold Cup last year on Al Boum Photo. “I couldn’t stop thinking of her. I just want to thank her every time I win a big one.”

There is no race bigger than the Gold Cup and, this Friday, Townend hopes to replicate his victory on the same horse while remembering his mum who died when he was just 15. The 29-year-old returns to Cheltenham under even more scrutiny than he did before securing a first Gold Cup win for himself and, also, for his trainer, Willie Mullins. A year ago Townend still rode under the shadow of the glaring mistake he had made on Al Boum Photo at Punchestown in 2018 when he inexplicably steered the horse around the last fence, instead of over it. But he was redeemed in the Gold Cup.

“It was huge,” Townend says at his home near Kilkenny. “It was one of those brilliant stories that sport gives you.”

This week Townend is under intense pressure as he, rather than the now-retired Ruby Walsh, goes into the Cheltenham Festival as Mullins’s No 1 jockey. Despite being champion jockey in Ireland for the first time in 2011, Townend remained behind Walsh in the Mullins yard for years. He is too intelligent to dismiss the new weight of expectation but, comparing his respectable record of 10 Festival winners to that of the peerless Walsh, he laughs dryly. “Ruby? Just the 59 winners.”

Townend joined Mullins soon after he lost his mum. Walsh was already reeling off Cheltenham winners for Mullins, so was he in awe of both men? “Very much so. Everyone, when they get their licence, wants to ride for Willie – and every jockey wants to have Ruby’s success. Ruby was so good to me. He was also tough enough for me, growing up. Ruby isn’t afraid to hide his opinion, and he’d let you know in a stern way if you were wrong. But if he didn’t have any interest in you, he wouldn’t say it. All the horses in the yard were new to me, and it was a different way of riding. Ruby could translate what Willie was trying to say a bit easier, because he spoke the jockey’s language. But they both warrant so much respect.”

As engaging as he is throughout this interview, Townend has the grit to deal with the pressure of replacing Walsh. The way in which he overcame his mum’s death from cancer revealed much about his character. “My mum died around the Christmas before I left home. I began working at Willie’s yard that next September and it helped take my mind off things. We’d come to a deal, Mum and me, that I’d get the exams out of the way and look at being a jockey [at 16]. Right up to the end she’d go pony racing with us. That summer before she died she was pretty sick but she’d still make the pilgrimage down to west Kerry every week with us. She was there when I won the Dingle Derby – even though she was quite sick. She and my dad were very open with us and we were old enough to understand what was going on. It was a tough time for all of us but it probably egged me on even more to succeed.”

You invariably learn most about the character of a person in adversity. Punchestown in 2018 could have ruined Townend because his error on Al Boum Photo was a calamity. “If the earth had opened up and swallowed me I’d have been happy. But Ruby was huge. I put my phone in a cupboard, so no one could get through to me. But he had my girlfriend Anna’s number and was checking up through her. I actually spoke to him a couple of times at the course and he rang me on the way home. I then spoke to him at home twice that night. He was a big support. That’s the kind of great people we have in racing. They’re human beings first and racing’s a huge family that way. They stand behind their own.”



Paul Townend shows his elation after winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Julian Herbert/PA

It was still a terrible ordeal for Townend. “I just survived the night with Anna. It was just us two in the house and she comforted me as best she could. I suppose going back to Ruby and Willie the next morning was the best way because they started to slag me about it. At least they weren’t tiptoeing around you, and talking about you behind your back. They took the piss out of me to my face – especially Ruby. That broke the ice.”

Rather than being broken, Townend returned to the Punchestown festival that afternoon and won three big races. It showed his calibre as a jockey and as a man. “I felt absolutely exhausted to be honest. Emotionally and physically drained by the whole thing. As much as the treble helped, and I’d redeemed myself, it was still hanging over me. I wouldn’t like to go through those emotions again. But hopefully I’ve achieved enough things to right my wrong.”

Winning the Gold Cup washed away the pain. As Walsh chose to ride Bellshill, Townend made staggering amends on Al Boum Photo. On a day of sunshine and dark rain near Kilkenny he lights up at the memory. “Bellshill was the standout going into it but it wasn’t happening for him. And Kemboy [ridden by Danny Mullins] went at the first. To the public, Al Boum Photo might have been Willie’s third string but we always thought he’d stay very well if he just got into the rhythm. It’s strange how well everything went. I can still remember the ease at which things happened. After six fences I was in the position I’d imagined so many times in my head. On the bridle, in a beautiful rhythm jumping, with the fancied ones just in front of me and all the room in the world. I never relaxed as he’s not the most natural of jumpers. But I remember landing at the back of the last thinking: ‘Shit I’m going to win a Gold Cup!’ I usually try to remain level-headed when I win. But when I watch back my reaction at Cheltenham I have to cringe. I find it embarrassing.”

So if he wins again on Friday – and Townend expects Al Boum Photo to be “just as good as last year” – will his celebrations be more restrained? “It will be even sweeter but, yeah, I can tone it down a little bit. Be a bit more professional about it.”

The scrutiny he will be under all week could also curb his ebullience. “Yeah, but people are making more of me taking over from Ruby than I have. It’s still Cheltenham and I’ve been riding there a long time [this is his 12th Festival]. Every other year I went there with lots of big rides. Just because they were second choice to Ruby didn’t mean they were second-rate horses. To their owners they were first choice. So I’m not spending too long thinking about that side of it. I’m just trying to map out the races in my head and prepare for it the same way I always do.”

It is curious, considering Mullins’s domination of Cheltenham, that the trainer has never won the Queen Mother Champion Chase which runs on Wednesday. Townend rides the mighty Chacun Pour Soi and, even against renowned opposition in Altior and Defi Du Seuil, he could deliver victory in a race Mullins has always craved. “Well, Willie hadn’t won a Gold Cup until last year,” Townend says. “So it would be nice to win the two for him to repay him for everything. He took me under his wing so much when I went there, and he nurtured me into the rider I am now. He’s always kept an eye out for me on a personal level to make sure everything was going OK. Chacun is a big-talking horse. He’s answering all the questions and the feeling he gives you throughout the race is huge. He hasn’t been to Cheltenham, but I can’t see why he wouldn’t handle it. He’ll be there jumping the last and whatever happens from there is in the laps of the gods. But I’d like to win this one for Willie.”

And for his mum too? “Yeah,” Townend says with a smile. “It’s funny when you think of all the emotions going through your head when you win. She’s the first thing I think of after every big winner. She just comes into my mind. I’m sure she has a lot to do with me being successful.”

The Cheltenham Festival presented by Magners runs from this Tuesday until Friday greatbritishracing.com

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