2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey, Paul Townend, talks about his devotion to horse racing, the constant pursuit of winning and his journey to becoming one of the best jockeys in his sport.
There’s no comparison between winning and losing. You learn to live with both.
I’ve had two big moments on Al Boum Photo in the last two years.
The first was in 2018 at the final fence in Punchestown. In a split second, I made a bad mistake.
It was a long, long night after that. Probably the longest night I ever put down.
I dealt with it the best I could, but it affected me hugely. I was lucky to have very good people around me. In fairness to Ruby Walsh and David Casey, they were on the phone straight away. Willie Mullins supported me and said, “Look, tomorrow’s a new day. We’ll crack on.”
I was lucky enough to ride a treble the next day. I was fortunate in the position I was in with my job to have the backing of Willie and the owners, Mr and Mrs Donnelly, to come out and rectify my mistake as best I could the very next day.
The best thing about it was when I got into the yard the next morning, the ice was broken straight away. They were cracking jokes about it, albeit I didn’t find it that funny at the time. I think that’s the best way to get on with things.
It was bad, but I’d a job to do. I’m a professional. The world wasn’t going to end.
”As far as I’m concerned, that’s done and it’s in the past. Let’s move on.
The second big moment on Al Boum Photo was winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year. It was incredible. It took winning to a whole new level for me. I’ve had success in Cheltenham before, but winning that just felt like nothing else. It was a pure adrenaline rush for days afterwards.
I got in a very good rhythm on the way around, and it’s rare that things start happening that easy for you. Successes usually happen easier than the losses. We got into the rhythm, and everything started to flow. I was sort of forcing myself to not think, “You’re going to win” because anything can happen. I couldn’t have been happier for the majority of the race, but then when I did get over the last fence, it was a sigh of relief.
Of course, after everything that had happened, it was particularly special to be on the back of Al Boum Photo. I was delighted for Willie and for the owners for standing by me.
I’d have been delighted if the horse had won either way but, I’d have been sick if it wasn’t me on his back.
After the race is a complete blur. I’d try and keep myself as levelheaded as I can most of the time. I would consciously try and not get too high or too low after a race. But after that race, I kind of lost the run of myself a little. It’s a bit cringy looking back on it.
We are professional sportspeople. We want to win. Every day we go out, that’s what we want. Even when you’re riding an outsider in a race, you’ll convince yourself that this horse has a chance. If you can’t do that, then there’s no point in going out in it.
You’re probably fooling yourself sometimes in thinking that you have a chance, but you’ll pick the positives in everything, and you’ll pick the negatives in all the other horses in the race and go out with that mindset.
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To win is brilliant. To lose is heartbreaking. You’ve put as much effort into the loser as you have into the winner, sometimes even more.
I was always told when I started riding, mistakes happen. You’ll make mistakes. You just have to try and not make the same mistake again. I think that’s very important.
If you make excuses for your mistakes and don’t own up to them and take responsibility for them, you’ll never learn from them.
You’re the one out there so if it goes wrong, you’re the one to blame. But there is a huge team behind getting the horse there. You’re also the one that gets the applause if you win, not the people that have got you there.
There are a thousand things going through your mind before a race. Then at the end, there could be thousands of people in the stand, and you’re only a couple of feet away from them, and you can’t hear a thing until you go by the line. Then, the place erupts.
Adrenaline and focus drown everything out. But if you’re finishing fifth or sixth in a race, you can hear everything. You’re riding the same finish as you would be, but I suppose it’s just focus that when you are in with a winning chance that you can’t hear anything.
I can remember the first time I met Willie Mullins.
I was taking Transition Year out of school at the time, and I decided to go up to Thurles racecourse with my dad. I was nervous meeting him. I only ever knew Willie Mullins from the telly, and I knew that this was a big moment.
”I went up and asked him for an apprenticeship. It was a massive step toward fulfilling my childhood dream.
So, I left school and moved up to Kilkenny and started living with my cousin Davy Condon who was a jockey at Willie’s. It was a big help having him to live with first of all and then having him in the yard to guide me too. Growing up, he was the professional jockey I always aspired to be. I really looked up to him.
I thought that racing was very simple. I’d a rude awakening when I became a professional.
Your world changes in more ways than one. You’re moving out of home. Living with jockeys is a new way of life. You have to fend for yourself. You’ve to feed yourself, all those things that you take for granted when you’re living at home. You have to grow up pretty quickly.
I was lucky in that I had a lot of success at an early age which helped my profile. I was never kind of stuck in a rut. At the same time, you see your peers of the same age going out on a Friday night having fun, and you’re heading up to Dundalk to ride in the freezing cold. But that’s what I chose to do. I love it. The success obviously made it a lot easier.
Dealing with success at that young age was made easy by the people ahead of me in Willie’s. They were well able to keep me grounded. Ruby was there, and he was brilliant for advice but was able to tell you when you’re doing things wrong as well. Obviously, Willie himself has a way with words. He wouldn’t say a whole lot to you, but he’d keep you grounded.
I just thought, “I’m going up to Willie Mullins’ and I’m going to sit on a load of horses. And a lot of good ones!”
At the time, I was probably too naive to understand any of it. I didn’t look beyond that, to be honest. I just knew I was going to be surrounded by horses and that’s all I wanted.
I grew up on a farm just outside Midleton in County Cork. We always had horses growing up. As long as I can remember, I was always able to ride ponies. The obvious thing for me to do was to become a jockey, with all my family involved in racing.
My uncles, aunts, grandparents were all involved in racing. Even my two sisters work in racing today. It’s all we’ve known, and the only thing I ever wanted to do.
I played a bit of hurling and football as a child but to be honest, there was never any doubt that it was racing that I was going to pursue.
I managed to win the Dingle Derby in my last year of pony racing which was a big deal. It’s like the Gold Cup of pony racing. That gave me a taste of the pressure with riding and when I was lucky enough to win that I got a taste for the success as well.
I’ve made a home for myself in Kilkenny, and I’m lucky that I’m only an hour and a half away, but I don’t get down to Cork as much as I’d like. I love the feel of home.
I rarely socialise down there. I left school when I was 15, so my friends from school went on to do their own thing and are scattered all over the world. When they were growing up and doing the teenage things I was trying to live in an adult’s world. So, we probably grew apart a bit in that sense. I catch up with them whenever I can. I’ve one or two friends down there that are involved in racing that I do speak to regularly.
You have to dedicate your life to being a jockey. It’s a bug. It’s a drug to us.
My sister Jody was very young when I left home. She works in the yard with us a few days a week and stays with me then. It’s nice to catch up with her because she’s a good few years younger than me. I suppose we’re making up for lost time.
She’s getting a bit of success too now, and she won’t be shy about telling you where you went wrong. It’s good to have her around, but to be honest, I hate watching her ride. I’d much rather be riding myself.
I know what can go wrong. It’s probably how my family at home feel when I’m riding. It’s strange. When you’re involved in a race yourself, you don’t worry about it.
I was there the morning she had a bad injury. She knew herself when she landed. No one knows your body like you. She’d broken her back.
She’d the operation the next morning and was on the road to recovery then making up for lost time. You’d never think anything happened to her looking at her up on a horse now. Like me, she’s always been around horses, so it’s second nature to her.
As a jockey, you have hundreds of falls. I’ve broken collar bones, ankles, ribs, the norm. Touch wood, I’ve never had any serious injuries.
My family and friends probably get to enjoy my wins a bit more than me. We’ve a quick turnaround. When you’re riding a winner, brilliant you can celebrate for a few minutes, but then your mind has to switch and focus on the next race straight away. They can head to the bar, and we head to the start again.
Racing is always on your mind. We don’t ever really get to switch off from it. There’s a group of us around here that play a bit of golf – very badly. I like going to the cinema and trying to do normal things. We’ve a holiday that we go on every summer to Portugal, which is good fun. Besides that, we rarely get out of the racing bubble. You’re always checking your phone to see what’s happening in the racing world.
When you’re working with animals, nothing is routine. When you’re not on the horses back, you’re looking up entries and trying to do your homework, so it’s a 24/7 job.
”Coming into a big week like Cheltenham, the butterflies start on the Monday night.
You need to be around friends and family that are going to calm you down and keep things as normal as possible.
You’re mulling over something in your head the whole time. You’d be sitting down watching TV and your mind just wonders, you do it unknown to yourself most of the time.
The hardest part is before you get up on the horse. Once you get down to the start, happy days. You’re in control of the situation then.
I like to keep myself as private as I can. I’m there to perform and do a job, the media side of things just comes with it. It’s important of course to promote the sport as best you can, but sometimes, it’s nice to be just left to it.
I don’t engage on social media anymore. Social media is brilliant when it’s used right. It gets all the news out as quick as possible all over the world. It’s brilliant for racing.
But there’s just so much negativity on it as well. I just don’t think I need that negativity in my life at the moment. I’m fortunate enough to be pretty successful, and still, you can see all the negativity around and the trolls on social media. What they put up for everyone to see is out there, but it’s the private messages that come in after that, it’s ridiculous to be honest. It’s a nuisance to me.
Ruby told me coming off the track that day that he was finished, but I had to pretend I didn’t know.
He was after beating me, and he said it, and I thought, “yeah, ok.” Then I thought about it, and I said, “Wait, what did you just say?” After the race, everyone was talking and asking about Ruby’s future, but I pretended I knew nothing.
Until someone said that he was after announcing he was retiring, I was able to laugh then and admit, “Yeah, I know, he told me earlier.”
I’m probably very lucky in that Ruby’s misfortune of missing a couple of seasons – or bits of seasons – meant that I’ve had a taste of the top. I’ve been in and out, so it’s not completely alien to me. The safety net of him coming back was always there as well. You just have to make the best of your time there.
Whereas now, you’re on the pedestal and you’re there to be shot at. It brings added pressure and stress, but that gives me my adrenaline. I’d rather have that than someone else have the job.
Everyone wants to ride big winners, but every winner is important.
”If you go to Thurles or Clonmel on a wet Thursday afternoon, someone still owns them horses and that could be their Gold Cup.
From the time any young lad sits on a horse those are the horses he wants to be riding, the ones I’m fortunate enough to be sitting on. I got to ride Hurricane Fly every morning, so I knew him very, very well. On top of that, I got to ride my first Grade One on him, and he won, so I owed him a lot. He’d great character, so sometimes it’s easier to get to know them ones because they keep you on your toes. You can’t just breeze through the morning with them.
When we get to the races sometimes that’s the first time, we’re seeing the horse, so we’ve to try and get to know it in those first five minutes. They can be brief encounters. But you do build a bond. You get to know them. They trust you, and you trust them, very quickly sometimes.
I still enjoy the smaller wins. Everyone loves the glamour and the limelight of your Cheltenhams, your Punchestowns, your Aintrees, but sometimes you can get an extra special kick out of your smaller winners.
I’ve no idea about the future. I haven’t looked beyond riding. All I know is horses and racing. It’s been my life all along. I can’t imagine I’d ever be able to walk away from the sport, but what role I’d fill in, I’m not sure. Who knows? Hopefully, it’s not for a long time yet.
Advice I’d give any young jockey hoping to make it?
Wait until I’m finished!
Paul Townend is a Ladbrokes brand ambassador. For more visit ladbrokes.com
If you enjoyed Paul’s piece you might like to read Andrew McNamara’s – “On The Mend.”
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