CHAMPION jockey Paul Townend was back on home soil and found the winners enclosure with Walking the Brise at Cork Racecourse recently.
The Lisgoold native enjoyed a brilliant Christmas at Leopardstown and will have a red hot book of rides for the Cheltenham Festival including Facile Vega, Lossiemouth, Energumene, Appreciate It, State Man, Allaho, and Gold Cup favourite Galopin Des Champs.
His association with Willie Mullins has propelled the Cork man to the very top of the sport and his relaxed demeanour following his latest winner at Mallow had him in reflective mood after a bonanza of winners at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.
“It’s always great to come back to my local track at Mallow and ride a winner,” Townend said.
“Walking the Brise was good and showed a good attitude to win. She is very honest and always gives a good account of herself.
“That was an issue last season but he looks a live Gold Cup contender. He hasn’t had a whole amount of experience over fences so we were very pleased with the run.”
The recent, albeit temporary, retirement of Davy Russell left a big void in the weight room as the Youghal man was a brilliant jockey and an even tougher opponent.
While they were fierce rivals on the track Townend was keen to acknowledge the career of his neighbour. With Russell very much part of the Gordon Elliot team and Townend attached to the powerful Willie Mullins team they enjoyed some terrific battles at all the major tracks and festivals.
“Davy was an incredible jockey and has won everything including Gold Cups and Grand Nationals.
“He was the complete package as a rider and was so tough. When I started as a raw teenager Davy was a senior figure among all the jockeys and he held massive respect.
“He had strong opinions and was usually right with horses. He was very competitive to ride against, he was tough, sharp, hard, resilient, and had such a will to win.
“He had everything really and putting the head down to battle against him was always a ferocious battle. I remember beating him in a driving photo finish in the Ladbroke Trophy at Newbury, I was riding Total Recall and he was riding Whisper.
“I just edged past him and he shouted over to me after passing the line, ‘we had to come all the way over to England from east Cork and you do that to me’.”
With Cheltenham very much on the horizon the Mullins/Townend team looks stronger than ever. While most jockeys rightly dismiss talk of festival successes this far out, the champion trainer has assembled a formidable squad across all the divisions.
“Facile Vega looks good on what he has done this season. He won the Grade 1 at Christmas. Lossiemouth looks a real Triumph type and we are very happy with her progress. She is good and tough and this race will suit her.
“Energumene was good here at Cork in the Hilly Way Chase. We won the Champion Chase last season so all roads lead to that race in March.
”I suppose there will be plenty of interest here in Cork with Home By The Lee who has put in two great performances and is a live contender for the Stayers Hurdle. It looks a very open race at this stage but it is always very competitive.”
Of course, Townend has enjoyed a very fruitful partnership with Joe and Marie Donnelly who also hail from Leeside.
Two Gold Cups with Al Boum Photo were magical and the Donnellys have a couple of nice Cheltenham prospects.
“State Man was good at Leopardstown and will go to the Champion Hurdle with a chance. Obviously, Constitution Hill has a massive reputation and the English public have really latched on to him.
“But our horse won the County Hurdle last season and has improved all season. Honeysuckle is also there, so let’s hope all the horses get there and we should have a brilliant race. The Donnellys also have Gaillard Du Mesnil who won at Leopardstown over the holidays and will run in one of the novice chases.
“Hopefully we all get there as we have a lovely team of horses.”