Cheltenham Festival 2022: For Paul Townend, Gold Cup glory relies on keeping out the doubt

Friday March 18 2022, 12.01am, The Times

Never doubt the uncertainty and never let doubt intrude on your certainty. It’s the neatest and harshest of all the riding maxims and one that Paul Townend will hold close as he and Al Boum Photo try to win a third Gold Cup on Friday afternoon. But what a test they put it through on Thursday.

Swinging in to the straight in the Turners Novices’ Chase, the first race on the card, Townend and Galopin Des Champs had put up a jumping display of such soaring power that they had not only left Rachael Blackmore and the highly rated Bob Olinger bobbing wearily in their wake but had some eager punters already making him favourite for next year’s Gold Cup.

Although bred in France, Galopin Des Champs is a big, strapping image of the classic old-fashioned Irish chaser and has a rolling gallop to match. What he also has is a leap that could vault a lorry and he gave the first four fences so much daylight that you had to wonder how he would ever handle the landing.

There had been only one blip in 14 of the 16 fences and the 15th was one more turn of Townend measuring up and pumping forward in the last three strides to spring-heeled take off. On towards us Galopin Des Champs thundered, and one last time the rider sent the big horse up and over with just a furlong of soggy grass between them and more Cheltenham glory.

But it was too soggy to effect a 30 mph landing. The leap was clean but the turf would not grip the skidding hooves. One grabbing extra stride failed to right the capsize, and a moment of acclamation was reduced to horse and man rolling on the turf. Galopin Des Champs may not race again this season and is likely to go for shorter Cheltenham targets rather than the Gold Cup next year. But for Townend, the shock and the challenge was much more immediate.

“I am heartbroken for Paul because I have been that soldier,” Ruby Walsh said from the commentary box — reliving the memories of last flight disasters on Annie Power and then again on Benie Des Dieux in the 2015 and 2019 Mares’ Hurdle. “The world’s going to say you should’ve done this or that, but he made a decision and his intentions were right. He’ll get vilified, I know it; I got vilified for years. I’m gutted for him.”

The chance for vindication or further vilification was to come within the hour. Allaho was a favourite for the Ryanair Chase and for 16 of the 17 fences was less extravagant and even more foot perfect than Galopin Des Champs. He was winging his way to the last with Townend, 31, at the all-conquering Willie Mullins yard, poised quiet but insistent on his back.

Thirty metres out Townend could see his take-off stride and as he punched one, two, three for take-off, we could see it too. Then, in a heart-stopping moment to all us watchers, Allaho declined, took another stride and burst the birch with his chest. But balance was maintained, momentum restored and Allaho strode on to victory. Townend could content himself by saying: “I’m OK, the horse is OK. It doesn’t make it any easier, but what goes around comes around.”

Friday will be his and Al Boum Photo’s fourth consecutive shot at the Gold Cup, having won in both 2019 and 2020 and logged a good third behind Minella Indo and A Plus Tard last year where this year’s outsider Santini was pulled up and Royale Pagaille, albeit impeded by injury and two lost shoes, ran in only sixth. Al Boum Photo may be experienced but his jumping has not always been perfect — a crashing fall at Cheltenham 2018 left Walsh with a broken leg.

All jockeys will know that the Gold Cup puts extra pressure on a horse’s jumping and their own concentration. But barring an uncharacteristic fall by Minella Indo last season, all bar one of the 11 runners have clear enough records to give their riders confidence. The exception is Asterion Forlonge, who carries the same black and yellow Donnelly colours as Al Boum Photo and last week could be seen cantering round the racecourse each morning quite unaware of the big question mark on his back.

Asterion Forlonge is talented enough to have started favourite in front of Shishkin in the 2020 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but while his switch to fences has included a brilliant win at Punchestown, he has also sent his rider rolling in the turf on four separate occasions — the most recent being a last fence crash in the King George VI at Kempton.

The rider on that occasion, as well as during the Punchestown victory, was 29-year-old Bryan Cooper from County Kerry who had already been a teenage sensation before he took three races at the 2013 Festival and followed with the Gold Cup on Don Cossack in 2016. Since then injuries and other things have stalled a career which is now getting back on track and could be sealed by victory on Friday.

“Oh yes, I think he has a hell of a chance,” Cooper said of Asterion Forlonge out on the track on Thursday morning. “He’s actually a very good jumper but has just failed to get his landing gear out the last couple of times.” That may not sound the most ringing of endorsements, especially with Galopin Des Champs in the memory, but at 25-1 it is worth putting forward with the thought, “you heard it here first”.

For of course we all have our doubts in life and they will be there before the Gold Cup too. But when jockeys pull the goggles down and face the starter, belief is the thing.

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