09 May 2018

The Ghost of Punchestown

There is something quite supernatural about the Punchestown Racing Festival – I have experienced it for years – from the very first time I went to the rolling acres of County Kildare for the April gathering of the clans (the biggest it seems is called Mullins). There I met for the first time the legendary, late (sadly) and so much missed (inevitably) Racing Priest Father Sean Breen then Parish Priest of Eadestown who used to joyfully proclaim ‘My parish runs from the 7 furlong start at Naas in the west to the back straight at Punchestown in the East- so there is a God’.

It was ‘Breener’ who drew my attention to the most utterly absurd race conditions for any contest on this planet, let alone at his beloved Punchestown. To run in last Friday’s Bishopscourt Cup race horses had to be ‘four years old and upwards the bona fide and unconditional property of farmers farming land in the Kildare Hunt District and in their possession since 1st January, 2018. Sons and daughters of persons qualified to enter, working on their parents’ farms and who have no other occupation, are eligible to enter horses, their bona fide property, in this race’- so you try and work out where that leaves you if the good old Bank Manager owns 10 per cent or who has to prove it?

The conditions may have been all right and proper in the era when ‘The Good Book’- as Father Sean, deciding whether to raise me or see me in one of those wonderful McCormick’s evenings that for years were unique (what I remember of them anyway)- would point out, referred to Handmaidens and Forefathers, but in the 21st Century?????

But at Punchestown 2018 there was spotted a ghost, looking as white as a sheet and as if his world had come an end.

A week that ended with Willie Mullins Champion Trainer (again) and the two best Lady Riders from anywhere I have ever seen- Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry- both ride winners and go on to joyous well-deserved retirement, had begun so differently.

In 30 years covering sport, not just racing, all over the world I have never seen a more horror stricken, professionally stunned to the point of disbelief, look on a participant’s face as a ghost of a jockey- Paul Townend- walked past me bound for the sanctuary of the weighing room after his well-documented ‘moment’ at the last fence when for some reason he thought it had to be by passed- realised it wasn’t- and was unseated and took a rival out.

Townend genuinely thought that ‘moment’ had cost his boss and his mentor, Willie Mullins-their relationship such he is almost one of the family- his cherished Champion Trainers Title, as the double whammy was it had allowed Willie’s rival Gordon Elliott to collect the first three places in the Group One and add a six-figure sum to his lead.

I can reveal that the Stewards were so concerned about Townend and his mental state as what had happened started to sink in they called urgently for Adrian McGoldrick, who will, in one senior jockeys words be ‘totally irreplaceable’ when he retires as Senior Medical Officer to Irish Racing at the end of the year, to assess Townend urgently- and to make sure he got home safely- and not do so alone- at the end of the inevitable enquiry, which was not to happen until the Doctor was satisfied Townend was ok.

No one has reported the extra mile the Stewards went that night. Townend reported early to Willie Mullins’ yard the next morning- the victim of endless wind ups, with the trainers full approval- as riders were encouraged to shout: “left”, “turn right”, at him at all the right moments.

And how did Townend- a hugely likeable young man- repay Team Mullins?

By somehow finding the mental toughness to ride a treble the next day as part of a Mullins’ six timer that effectively settled the Title.

I speak as a I find- to me the criticism of the Stewards handling of the Townend episode was ill informed based on ‘the usual suspects’ taking utter nonsense to Twitter, and out of all proportion. We have all made mistakes. Townend had the great courage to admit his- not try and pass the blame on- apologise and move on.

Can anyone seriously begrudge him the few hours to ‘get his head right’ after what he’s been through.

It’s an episode that belongs in history where it now is- it’s just one memory of an incomparable week on which let me offer three final thoughts.

First- Willie Mullins must have given north of 60 interviews during the week- his best quote without a doubt coming during the Wednesday when his horses ran riot and he remarked ‘It’s got to the stage I am not sure how many fingers I should be putting up to the photographers’.

Second- Gordon Elliott will be heartbroken, but he and Willie both deserve medals for the way they and their staff have conducted themselves throughout.

And finally – a note of disappointment. During the week I was handed literally hundreds of bits of paper from bookmakers after a race quoting the winner for some fanciful treat to come…

But what happened to the odds on this- Gordon went to Mass the Sunday before Punchestown- when will he next be going. Christmas? Next Punchestown? 3000?

That’s one we’d all like an answer to!

by Mike Vince