PAUL TOWNEND was in dreamland after providing his longstanding boss and mentor Willie Mullins with a first Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Now 28, Townend has ridden for Ireland’s multiple champion trainer since he left school and the win on Al Boum Photo was the culmination of their careers.
“I can’t believe, I just can’t believe it,” said Townend whose week began with victory in the Arkle Trophy on Duc Des Genievres. “I’ve grew up with racing all my life and I remember rushing off the school bus to try and make it home in time to see the Gold Cup.
“My memories of Cheltenham growing up are really Charlie Swan and Baracouda along with the great Best Mate. Racing is full of disappointments and you really have to enjoy the big days, but it’s important to keep as level as you can. It’s a brilliant feeling.
“I am so grateful to Willie and the owners for sticking by me. From the time I was an apprentice, Willie has supported me and I am just so grateful to give him his first Gold Cup.
“I got into a beautiful rhythm everywhere. I wasn’t where I wanted to be over the first two fences, but I got a couple of good jumps and, from there, everything just flowed for me. I had a bit of room and he jumped from fence to fence for me.”
Asked if there had been a concern about Al Boum Photo’s stamina, he replied: “You don’t know until you try over this distance, especially here, but we felt staying was his forte coming in and I think he really showed it today.
“I am just so grateful for the owners for sticking by me after the mishap at Punchestown last year. I think I owed it to the horse. My body is tingling, I swear to God I am trembling, and I can’t believe it.”
Townend has long been looked upon by the racing public as Ruby Walsh’s understudy, but he is no longer in his shadow and currently leads the Irish jockey’s title race. Walsh was already changed into his civvies, having pulled up Bellshill, when he congratulated his friend on his way to weigh in.
Yet, while Townend enjoyed a dream ride on Al Boum Photo, Richard Johnson was hard at work from the start on defending champion Native River who – to his credit – plugged on to finish fourth.
“He was very slow getting out of the gate and I have had to really niggle and cajole him to get him up there. To be fair, then he got into a nice rhythm but was always asking me to ask him to do things,” said Johnson. “He has done nothing wrong. It’s not quite as good as last year but another good run. I just think he wasn’t quite on his game and, in a Gold Cup you need to be 200 per cent.”
Forest Bihan finished fourth to Croco Bay in the Grand Annual Chase for Yorkshire owner Phil Martin, trainer Brian Ellison and jockey Danny Cook after the misfortune of Definitly Red being brought down in the Gold Cup.
Jonjo O’Neill Junior’s win in the Festival finale on Early Doors provided some consolation to trainer Joseph O’Brien who was left distraught after Sir Erec, favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, broke down after the fourth flight and had to be euthanised.