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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019

Johnny Ward: Strong field goes to post in the race to be Ireland's next top jockey

Paul Townend will step into the void left by Ruby Walsh, but there are a host of other pretenders to the throne.

Jack Kennedy: impressive start to the new campaign.
Jack Kennedy: impressive start to the new campaign.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

RARELY HAS A Grade One reverse had a defeated jockey so excited afterwards.

Paul Townend, riding Cheltenham hero Al Boum Photo, might have deployed a helmet to mask a rueful expression as once again he played second fiddle to Ruby Walsh, the latter steering the free-going Kemboy to Punchestown Gold Cup glory in May.

Townend rarely played the Dane but from the moment of Walsh’s retirement, he was essentially a guaranteed champion jockey indefinitely barring injury. He is going to be the boss and he has the talent to match.

It has gone rather unnoticed but Townend and Davy Russell have completely dominated the jockeys’ table so far. If one is to assume that both Russell and Barry Geraghty will be retiring in the next few years, it is prudent on this quiet weekend to look at who will be chasing Townend over the next decade or so, and who can emerge.

That said, whilst Geraghty has been decimated by injury towards the last few years of his career, Russell has fared better in that regard, Eddie O’Leary for one reckoning that he’s a long way off retirement.

Indeed, it is quite an intriguing narrative in Ireland at the moment. Who would have thought Paddy Merrigan would begin the campaign riding for Michael O’Leary? Both he and the hugely talented Kevin Sexton are attempting to rebuild their careers after a choppy past.

Here are five jockeys who have the opportunity to challenge behind Townend in the seasons to come – some with greater challenges ahead than others.

Jack Kennedy

One feels this could be his best season yet. He had 505 rides in the 2016/2017 campaign but suffered injury since and was down to 455 rides last season. He has started the term in sensational form, with seven winners from just 24 rides. He is only deployed sparingly for other trainers – just eight of his 24 rides for a trainer other than Gordon Elliott – but, having turned 20 in April, Kennedy will be expected to have a huge campaign, with Samcro and Apple’s Jade to look forward to.

Rachael Blackmore

It has gone rather unnoticed that Blackmore, who led the standings for so long last season, has had a dire start to this one. A one-from-27 hit rate recalls her amateur days but more frustrating is the injury she sustained at Clonmel in mid-May.

We can all relate to a forgettable second album – the Stone Roses’ Second Coming, Terence Trent Darby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh or even NWA’s Niggaz 4 Life – but Blackmore may be a little concerned.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates winning the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Novice Hurdle Blackmore: waiting on the next winner. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

This, of course, is not the Tipperary woman’s second season as a pro – but you get the point. She has been in the news thanks to fashion due to her recent ambassadorial role with Kildare Village but she will appreciate that jockeys go out of fashion fast and she will relish her second winner of the season like few as otherwise mundane.

This pioneering lady rider returns Saturday at Downpatrick, riding for Henry de Bromhead, and will be eager to get back on track. She had 195 Irish rides for Gigginstown last season.

Bryan Cooper

I’ve written on these pages before about the chance that Cooper must grasp as he rebuilds a career that promised the moon and the stars. So far this season, Cooper has ridden with quite an encouraging spread of trainers – Paul Nolan to Tony Mullins to Sarah Dawson to Edward O’Grady, for whom he is becoming a big player.

Cooper, few would have known, is riding out at Willie Mullins’ yard, and there are potential opportunities there as there is no longer a cast-iron second-choice jockey in Closutton. At 25, he should have a long road ahead, and trainers seem to be missing a trick as to how talented he is as a spare ride. In his early days with the late Dessie Hughes, Cooper was being touted as something of a prodigy, and this could be a seminal campaign.

David Mullins

The EMS Copiers Novice Handicap Steeplechase in May was certainly a grueller. Pravalaguna fell, bringing down Scoir Mear, whose rider Mark Walsh broke his leg. David Mullins, who steered Pravalguna, has also not ridden since, though it has gone under the radar a little.

This, remarkably, was the third time that Mullins had broken his left collarbone. “I was ready to come back last week but it was getting worse riding out so I decided to give it another week at the time of year when you can,” he explained to The42.

It was a badly-timed blow for a rider who should have benefitted from the musical-chairs element at Closutton brought about by Ruby Walsh’s retirement.

Mullins has had at least 300 rides in Ireland in the past four seasons but Gigginstown have clearly moved on from the man who rode Rule The World to win the 2016 Grand National: he only rode thrice for Michael O’Leary in the 2017/18 campaign and not at all last season. For whatever reason, Michael O’Leary no longer uses David Mullins.

“I’ll ride work for Willie, my father (Tom) and for anyone and everyone in between,” the hugely talented rider said.

Mark Walsh

Mark Walsh has had a relatively good time of it injury-wise and the timing of his most recent one, a broken leg at the Punchestown Festival, could have been worse. It meant that he could target the more relevant half of the Jumps season, though the absence through injury of Barry Geraghty meant that Walsh would have been making hay this summer. Speaking to Geraghty midweek, he has been targeting a Galway Races return from his latest setback but is now less than confident about that.

“I’m still in the boot and the crutches; I don’t know when I’ll be back,” Walsh said this morning. 

Mark Walsh Walsh: on the comeback trail. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Walsh has been the bridesmaid in terms of the JP McManus operation. In his early-30s, he is neither very young nor a veteran, and there is a good case for making him the best jockey in Ireland now that Ruby has retired. This quiet man can seize the opportunity.

This weekend, we have six pretty low-key Irish meets. Going by AA Roadwatch, it will take colourful Kanturk trainer Mick Winters around five hours to get to Downpatrick on Saturday and the journey will cost him over €100 before any allowance is made for tea on the way.

Read into what you will that Shes Flat Tothemat goes up north as the stable’s only runner in the Eire Og GAC 50th Anniversary Handicap Chase (5.25pm).

The John Oxx-Patrick Prendergast alliance has not been an immediate success, with 69 runners this season (29 individual) and just one winner. Neither will be panicking and Summerset could be very well-treated in the BetVictor Bet 5 Euros Get 30 Euros Offer Handicap (2.05pm) on Sunday.

Before all of that, Red Sole Diva is an absolute whopper of an each-way bet tonight in Cork’s first division of the Gina & The Champions Play July 12th Handicap (8.30pm). The daughter of Dylan Thomas, 7/1 with Betway as I type, travels like one far better than this mark and will likely be delivered late, hopefully to win.

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