THE TIMES SPORT, 14 March 2020
Throw your heart forward. That’s what the whole world must do in the testing times ahead. That’s what Paul Townend did to win the Gold Cup yesterday.
To take a steeplechase, albeit the most coveted in the land, as a metaphor for the plague of the century, is a risky move. But we live in risky times. Townend works in an extremely hazardous profession and his route through this week and even his progress through this second triumph on Al Boum Photo had seen moments of shuddering reverse.
But as he gathered body and mind to throw soul and heart and sinew for one final jumping effort, all that was behind him. For alongside, Robbie Power and Lostintranslation was reaching an equally soaring leap, Nico De Boinville and Santini were behind and between them with both Monalee and Al Boum Photo’s stable companion Real Steel still dangerous. This was going to be tough but then Paul had known that from the beginning.
For even when he and Al Boum Photo won last year’s Gold Cup for trainer, Willie Mullins, he was still only second jockey to Ruby Walsh at the Co Offaly stable and Ruby was the greatest and most successful jockey to ever ride the Cheltenham circuit. This was the Festival when Paul Townend had to emerge from Ruby’s shadow and a hard-hearted script writer could hardly have conjured an unhappier start.
On the opening day Paul was on a beaten favourite in the first, fell in the second, was fourth in the third and on his fourth and final ride, the odds on Benie Des Dieux, was outsmarted by Rachael Blackmore and hot rival Honeysuckle. In further food for doubters, the now “say it as I see it” TV pundit that is Ruby Walsh was saying “close the door Paul, close the door” as Blackmore slipped Honeysuckle up the inside. The Walsh boots were looking very big things to fill.
Townend has never been demonstrative and he had already been turning down normal media commitments. It was easy to imagine the pressure beginning to build. Two more thirds and three other rides and a beaten favourite on the second day continued this narrative until the Mullins second string Fenny Hollow outran their hot fancy Appreciate in the final race. Paul had kept his head during disaster and now there was plenty more triumph to come.
The third day saw a glorious ride to be close third on the fabled veteran Faugheen and a real vintage effort on Min won the Ryanair and set up yesterday’s set of memories to take to the Townend grave. If on Tuesday the fates had frowned, by Friday they were positively smothering with kisses, handing Paul the first race when a luckless stumble took Jamie Moore off the clear leader Goshen at the last to let Paul and Burning Victory turn a distant second into unexpected victory. Follow that with a good second in the 24 runner County Hurdle and then a powerful and tactically ruthless finish to take the Albert Bartlett on Monkfish, and Paul Townend could ride to the start of the Gold Cup with the confidence that only winners bring.
Quite early in the race it was easy to believe that Al Boum Photo felt the same. As Elegant Escape, Bristol De Mai and then Monalee did the pace-making, the defending champion moved easier than he had a year ago, with Townend a lean, composed figure behind the mane. He is much the same shape as Ruby Walsh, perhaps a tad taller and while he does not quite have that maestro’s elegance through the leap, he is subtle and strong with the horse beneath.
At the first fence away from the stands, he needed to be as Al Boum Photo ploughed almost as low as the plastic frontings. He had to do it once more on this 22-fence journey but most importantly he had to use the tactical acumen which, along with the Willie Mullins ammunition, has seen him establish his place as Irish champion.
For with a much slower gallop than the last two Gold Cups, it was essential to be near the front of the pack as the field turned for home. At the top of the hill Townend and Al Boum Photo moved up and threw in a jump that put them into a position dominant enough to actually lead at the first fence on the descent.
From there it got hectic. First, Santini got up to duel with him on the turn where Lostintranslation joined them for those last desperate galloping strides to the last. Both riders asked for everything and were rewarded, but on the run it was Townend on the rail that seized the advantage and although Santini rallied with a wet sail to get within half a length, this second Gold Cup, this personal vindication, would not be denied.
Then there was the in-saddle interview, the ecstatic walk back in front of the grandstand and then, as horse and jockey were led into the winner’s circle, ITV’s Ed Chamberlin said Paul had showed he had come out of Ruby Walsh’s shadow. Ruby’s response was both instant and passion filled. “Paul’s not in my shadow,” shouted the man who had so long mentored his successor. “He’s a champion. He has delivered.” There were tears in Ruby’s eyes. Only he knew how much heart it had taken.