THESE are strange days for everyone involved in the racing industry.
The focus is on looking after the horses and being ready for when the go-ahead is given for racing to recommence, most likely behind closed doors as was the case for a brief period below the stricter Covid-19 lockdown measures.
Lisgoold’s Paul Townend was in rich form behind the hiatus. He was crowned Irish Champions Jockey again while he excelled during the Cheltenham Festival, riding some major winners.
However, Fairyhouse, Aintree, and now the Punchestown Festival, were all postponed since late March.
“It is usually a big one for us but unfortunately, it’s out of our hands,” said the Ladbrokes ambassador. “It is a brilliant week and usually rounds off a good year. Financially we are missing out plenty!”
Townend’s fondest memory from Punchestown is 2010 when he rode Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle.
“That was a big winner and I remember it very fondly. He hadn’t run since the Morgiana Hurdle earlier that season and he just got up to beat Solwhit. Ruby Walsh was missing that week, so it was a good week for me and that win was the icing on the cake.
“Had the festival gone ahead, Al Boum Photo would’ve gone there and I really would’ve loved to ride Chaun Pour Soi. I was so disappointed I didn’t get to ride him at Cheltenham. Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle would’ve had a rematch as well which would have made for a great clash.
“Out of the festivals that have been cancelled, Punchestown is probably the hardest one to see go. The Grand National is one race and we don’t bring a huge team over there. Punchestown is our Cheltenham so I am missing it the most.”
Though he was handed the crown once the season concluded early, he would probably been crowned champion jockey at the festival as well.
“I think I still get my name on the trophy or at least, I’m not giving it back anyway! I think if any of the others caught me this year, I would have been very unlucky. If I stayed injury free, I don’t think I would have been caught.”
Youghal’s Davy Russell was 30 winners behind him.
“I wanted to ride 100 winners again this year and I completed that just before Cheltenham so I reached my personal target. I was on target for my best season yet so it is disappointing the way it’s ended. It means a lot to be crowned champion jockey this year.”
There was pressure on Townend to deliver, with Ruby Walsh retiring and as number one to Willie Mullins.
“It was something I really wanted to do this year and thankfully it worked out. When lockdown is lifted we can celebrate it and Cheltenham. I will set a target of 100 winners again for next season. I thought if I rode nine winners a month this season then it would bring me close. The same next year would be nice and the main thing is to stay injury free.”
Whenever the call comes to return to the track, he’ll be ready.
“I have no problem with racing behind closed doors whatsoever. It will obviously have a different feel to it with no owners or even trainers in the parade ring but once you get out on the track it is the very same. You’re not looking at the crowd anyway when you’re out there.
"Having no spectators will obviously take away from the atmosphere when you get to the track and the build-up but when you’re out there to do your job on the track it makes no difference. Once everyone abides by the rules I think it’s as safe as anywhere. I’s say it’s more dangerous going down to the shops.”
For Townend, life in lockdown is busy. In a different way.
“I have bought a few calves for something different to do. I have a bit of farming experience I suppose from growing up but now I realise I probably didn’t listen to my dad as much as I should have. I feed them twice a day; morning and evening and fenced the place for them. So, I’m making plenty of jobs for myself. I have three little Shetland ponies, a dog, and thinking of getting chickens too.
“Aside from a bit of farming, there are plenty of challenges being thrown at me. I did the raw egg challenge which wasn’t as bad as I thought. I had the benefit of never trying a raw egg before so I had it downed before I got the taste.
“I won’t be doing it again. It wasn’t as pretty off the camera!”