Paul Townend celebrates winning the Boylesports Irish Grand National with I Am Maximus. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Paul Townend surpasses own genius with unforgettable ride on I Am Maximus

The champion jockey delivered a stunning victory for owner JP McManus and trainer Willie Mullins in the Irish Grand National.

AS THE RUNNERS raced past the stands at Fairyhouse and headed for their final circuit yesterday, you could not have contemplated Willie Mullins securing another Boylesports Irish Grand National.

But that was to reckon without the masterful horsemanship skills of Paul Townend on I am Maximus.

The first circuit was a write-off.

I Am Maximus is left-leaning, which isn’t ideal at Fairyhouse, where, unhelpfully, they race right-handed. Townend buried I Am Maximus down the inside initially.

He hinted that he might do that when he spoke on Sunday. Big field, horses to your left, the opportunities to jump to your left can be limited.

But I Am Maximum didn’t enjoy that. He still tried to go to his left, despite the fact that such manoeuvrings took him on potential collision courses. It’s just his way. His rider actually gave him a smack after they landed over the third fence in the back straight. Concentrate.

Things didn’t improve much. I Am Maximus’ jumping lacked fluency. He was ponderous and careful and losing ground at his fences, so that, as the field raced past the enclosures with a circuit to run, I Am Maximus was 22nd and struggling.

Plan A wasn’t working, figured Townend. Time to try something else, because there was still time. Half the race still to run. That’s what the best riders do.

Pre-game plan out the window, you adapt to suit the circumstances in which you find yourself. And you do it on your own, because you are on your own. You take the initiative.

They jumped the first fence on the second circuit, and Townend moved I Am Maximus to his left, towards the outside. He continued to jump to his left, he continued to lose ground at his fences, but he seemed to be happier out there, in space.

Royal Pagaille fell in front of him at the third fence up the side of the track, and he had to take evasive action, but his rider had him going forward.

He was still only 20th in a thinning-out field as they started off down the back straight, but he was travelling now for his rider, and he started to pass horses.

paul-townend-wins-the-irish-grand-national-with-i-am-maximus Paul Townend (green and gold silks) wins the Boylesports Irish Grand National with I Am Maximus. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

I Am Maximus passed 12 horses before he jumped the third last fence, passed three more by the time he got to the second last, and another before he rose to the last.

He is a horse who doesn’t like to be in front for too long, so, as well as getting him going and travelling, Townend had to deliver him with his run at the right time.

It was only when he landed over the final fence that his rider asked him for maximum effort and, when he did, I Am Maximus responded willingly. Gevrey to his right, his stable companion Dolcita to his left, he went forward between them and stayed on gallantly to win by a length.

They vote on Ride of the Year at the Horse Racing Ireland awards every December and, when Townend won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Galopin Des Champs last month, the patience that he showed, the efficiency with which he rode his horse, the calmness that he displayed in the white-hot heat, you thought that no other ride in 2023 would match that one.

And now we have one that has at least matched it in terms of quality, possibly surpassed it. It has come less than a month later by the same rider – the champion jockey – in another marquee race.

It was a first Irish Grand National for Townend, a bold tick in one of the few blank boxes on his CV, and it was a fourth for owner JP McManus, 40 years after his first, the Edward O’Grady-trained Bit Of A Skite.

It was an astute move by the owner, to acquire I Am Maximus after he had finished fourth in the Grade 1 Brown Advisory Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last month.

paul-townend-celebrates-winning-the-irish-grand-national-with-i-am-maximus Paul Townend celebrates winning the Irish Grand National with I Am Maximus. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The Authorized gelding is only seven-years-old, and he was racing in just his fifth chase yesterday. It was some way to record your first win over fences, some race in which to record it, and I Am Maximus could progress now to take a high rank among the top staying chasers next season.

Although it wouldn’t be surprising if his owner and trainer confined him mainly to left-handed tracks from now on. It is helpful in that regard that Leopardstown and Cheltenham both suit.

It was a big Easter weekend at Fairyhouse for the owner, for whom I Am Maximus’ win was a seventh of the weekend. Four of those, owned by McManus, were trained by Mullins, who had 15 winners over the course of the three-day weekend, 11 at Fairyhouse and four at Cork.

There was that remarkable near-three-hour spell on Sunday, from around 2.20pm to just after 5pm, when he had eight winners, three-in-a-row at Cork and five-in-a-row at Fairyhouse, including the Grade 1 Honeysuckle Mares’ Novice Hurdle with Ashroe Diamond and the Grade 1 WillowWarm Gold Cup with Flame Bearer, a race in which he was responsible for the first six home.

Those 15 winners took Mullins to 217 winners for this National Hunt season, past the record of 212 that he set in the 2017/18 season. And six winners at the Cheltenham Festival to go along with it, five Grade 1s, including a Champion Chase and Gold Cup.

It has been some National Hunt season for the champion trainer. And it’s not over yet. We still have Aintree and Punchestown to come.

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