Paul Townend’s remarkable Cheltenham Festival makes him the jockey to beat

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Ahead of the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo was the firm favourite, but it’s fair to say that few truly thought he would make it two successive victories in the Cheltenham showpiece. After all, no horse had won the Gold Cup two years running since Best Mate in 2003 and 2004, a gap that proved that horse racing’s biggest prizes are not easily gained.

But those writing off Al Boum Photo before the race did not take into account jockey Paul Townend, a jockey who had built up incredible momentum by the time that 15.30 came around on Gold Cup day. While past winners are often fancied in the odds for any race at Cheltenham, this was a performance by horse and jockey that proved the enduring qualities of both.

It was no surprise that Townend produced a performance fitting of the occasion. After all, he had been on something of a roll. His Festival truly got going on Cheltenham’s St Patrick’s Day, when he rode Min to victory in the Ryanair Chase. Before that, he hadn’t torn up many trees – a victory in the Champion Bumper on Ladies Day was all he had to show for his efforts, somewhat disappointing for a rider of Townend’s ilk.

But that performance on Min in the Ryanair set the tone for what would ultimately be a fine couple of days in the saddle for Townend as he claimed the Festival’s top jockey accolade. He held off the challenge of favourite A Plus Tard and 16/1 shot Saint Calvados for a hard-earned victory, and perhaps he needed the confidence boost, having had to watch the likes of Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell steal the headlines in the first two days of the Festival.

Speaking about Townend after the Ryanair victory, trainer Willie Mullins said: “He’s very cool. Paul just forgets the last race – his attitude…  Next race, let’s concentrate on that and not worry about the bad things that happened. He just concentrates on what he has to do.”

That elite mentality was clear for all to see in the races to come, as Townend recorded another three victories on Gold Cup Day to claim the top jockey prize. These included a fine performance on 12/1 chance Burning Victory in the Triumph Hurdle and a solid win with Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

But the Gold Cup performance was the pièce de résistance of Townend’s Festival, the crowning glory on a day when everything he touched turned to gold. The win was perhaps all the more satisfying by the fact that Townend and Mullins were made to sweat for it. The Gold Cup is a notoriously difficult race to predict, and Al Boum Photo and Townend were made to contend with the challenges of Delta Work, Monalee, Lostintranslation, and of course Santini, who forced a dramatic finish right at the death. But the most trying races produce the sweetest victories.

With horse racing currently in limbo as a result of the coronavirus, it’s difficult to see what the immediate future holds for the sport. But you can be sure that when the Grand National does come around, Townend will be eager to record a maiden triumph in the famous race, and he’ll be right up there in the horse racing betting odds.

After the dust had settled on their second successive moment of Gold Cup glory, it was Mullins who once again best summed up the qualities of his jockey: “It’s really, really good for Paul, to take over from someone like Ruby Walsh. People said he was under pressure. Paul does his own thing, he probably rides better under a little bit of pressure. Paul has come and stamped his authority on his season in Ireland. It’s a tough act to follow, but he is Paul Townend, stable jockey to Willie Mullins, and he is top class.”