Although minus the giant Joncol, Paul Nolan remains confident of tackling Cheltenham's ups and downs head on, writes Vincent Hogan
THE evening draws in misty and raw as Paul Nolan gathers himself for the drive to Fermoy.
Another Cheltenham preview night looms, his fifth so far. "Jaysus, not even sure what road to take," he smiles. "I'll have to ring." A sharp March wind whips down from the blackened sky, scattering tiny flecks of straw in the yard like dust motes.
There are maybe six vehicles parked up at Toberona House on the outskirts of Enniscorthy and the one about to leave is a black '09 Mercedes. Nolan regrets the purchase.
The car is fine, but every time he looks at it he sees a needless extravagance. "I'm sorry I bought it," he says. "Holy Jaysus, I drove around in a Toyota Starlet for 10 years until I was nearly going out through the floor of it. Like Fred Flinstone I was.
"Then it stopped on me going to the races one day and I got out, hit it a kick and hurt me foot. And I thought, 'Feck, I'll drive out in something decent from now on!' So I bought myself the Merc and now I'm sorry I did. Anyway, I will drive that yoke until I go out through the floor again.
"Sure you all do stupid things."
A note up on the wall of his office discourages any use of the word 'recession'. Times are hard, but there's a self-perpetuating element to all the doomsaying too. Nolan is, by nature, an optimist. When, 17 years ago, he first took out a trainer's licence, the earliest residents of the yard were taken in for free.
He started out with a pair of point-to-pointers that had been rejected at the sales and turned them both into winners. They were owned by local farmers who agreed to provide the feed.
Fast forward to the height of the boom and he had maybe 80 horses on his books. Today? Closer to half that figure.
The part-time staff are gone and he's been stung by the odd syndicate unable to meet its costs. "The trouble starts when you tell them the horse is no good," he says.
"There might be three or four grand outstanding and they'll say, 'Get what you can for her, she's yours'. But if that horse is no good, two hundred quid is what it's worth.
"And you're then caught for the three or four grand."
No matter, he adores what he does. A few days ago, they were working some stock on the Curragh and one young horse performed "like a pure machine". Just watching it gave him goosebumps.
And those are the moments, he reckons, that no other working life could replicate. The Nolans left farming behind to do this and, whatever awaits them now, they won't be returning.
"I could never see myself getting out of this," says Paul. "I don't mind going back down to five, six, seven horses and doing it myself if I have to.
"After that piece of work in the Curragh the other day, I've got it in my head now that I've the next machine in my yard again.
"All of a sudden, it gives you a lift. It's as if you're after winning something, even though you get no extra money and there's no guarantees. You could walk in next morning, do that same piece of work and a leg could be falling off, the whole arse gone out of your trousers again. And you'd be going around with a head on you.
"But I could never have got that feeling from farming. You're not going to throw a party because an oul' ewe has two lambs instead of one, are you?"
He works in partnership with his younger brother, James. They have maybe 14 staff and, for all the prevailing turmoil, the yard is holding strong. Yet, theirs is neither a story of lineage nor inheritance.
Jimmy, their father, is a resolute GAA man who won county championships with Rathnure alongside the Rackards and once hurled against Christy Ring. Of the many things imparted to his sons, a love of National Hunt wasn't one. Paul reckons that his first time on a horse was at the age of 18 or 19 when he sat on a pony in the Gap of Dunloe. Back then, he'd never even been to a race meeting.
Yet, the spectacle of steeplechase always held his attention. Like millions of others, he sat spellbound watching Jonjo O'Neill coax Dawn Run up the most famous hill in Gloucestershire a quarter of a century ago.
And Cheltenham, ever since, has held a magical pull.
He was licensed maybe a year before saddling his first winner, Nibalda, in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown. The horse beat Dermot Weld's Musical Mayhem into second. "To get off the mark at the best track in Ireland, beating a horse of Dermot's?" chuckles Nolan now. "Oh Jaysus, bate all!"
Soon, the winners began to accumulate and he settled into this beautiful life. Nolan was a handy sportsman who'd played minor and U-21 football for Wexford and was on the county's junior hurling team that beat Cork in the '92 All-Ireland final.
But once horses were in his world, all else quickly paled.
His major breakthrough win was Say Again's victory in the '02 Galway Hurdle, a race Nolan has again claimed twice in the interim. And, in '05, Dabiroun gave the yard its one and only Festival victory to date, winning the Fred Winter with Nina Carberry on board.
The glory was tinged with a faint sense of lost opportunity because, two races beforehand, Accordion Etoile had come home fourth in the Champion Hurdle, only three lengths adrift of Hardy Eustace.
They've had a few winners in the Cheltenham November meeting as well, so the place isn't one that fills him with any foreboding. This week, Nolan will saddle three runners at the Festival and believes that Nobel Prince in the Jewson Novices on St Patrick's Day may give him his best shot at a winner since '05.
He sees Cheltenham as a bit of a paradox. The facilities are extraordinary, yet the track isn't quite how it deports itself on TV. The ground, explains Nolan, is constantly undulating. Routinely, horses become unbalanced and miss a stride because the track seems to fall from side to side.
"I wouldn't be cribbin' about it too much," he says "but I think it's a pity for what we call the Olympics of racing that the track isn't more even. I was travelling in the car with Richard Johnston one day and he said it's even difficult to ride around Cheltenham on the flat.
"Now, you'd have to say -- normally -- the best horse will still win. And it's getting safer because they won't allow fast ground anymore. But there's no stride the same on it. It unbalances a horse because they keep losing their stride on it.
"The fairest part of Cheltenham is up the straight, because it's the only part of the track you could say is 100pc flat. The rest of it to me is like a gallop in Kilbeggan. Looks lovely on television. I mean there's probably nothing they can do about it anyway. And the world's best steeplechasers have won there.
"I'm just saying, in my book, there shouldn't be a fence one foot higher on the inside than the outside. That shouldn't happen."
In a perfect world, he would be travelling over next week with the giant Joncol in his armoury.
Last year's Hennessy winner has long been signposted as a Gold Cup horse and Nolan believes that that's still a reasonable notion. But he's had his share of setbacks this year and only now does it feel like they've begun to untangle the riddle.
Nolan believes he's "turned a corner" with Joncol and doesn't rule him out of Punchestown.
The trouble started with a small leg infection that seemed to have cleared after treatment. They then ran him at Navan in November and, as Nolan puts it, "he ran scurrilous", lumbering home 20 lengths behind Big Zeb.
"Never jumped a fence, never looked happy," he remembers. "Just jumped way to the right and was all wrong when he came back in. Nothing happened for a few days at home and we couldn't figure out what was wrong. Next thing, this leg exploded again.
"The vet came over, we treated it and it went away again in three or four days. Then, coming up to the Lexus, it happened again. We sent him up to the Curragh and he got regional transfusions, anti-biotics into the area of the infection. And for the 10 days before the Lexus, he was perfect."
They brought him to Leopardstown and he ran "a cracker considering the preparation", coming home third behind Pandorama.
But the subsequent defence of the Hennessy probably came too soon. "The Lexus had knocked the s**t out of him," recalls Nolan. "There was a superbug in his system that wasn't killed by the first batch of anti-biotics. And, because of that, all the wrong bacteria was in his stomach.
"When we started scoping him then, we found that different ulcers had formed. His whole digestive system was in bits. So we had to kill all the good and bad bacteria in his stomach over a period of five days."
After that, he was dosed -- essentially -- with the faeces of a healthy horse. This involved packing the faeces into tights, pouring water over it and squeezing the mix so that it released a juice. Two pints of the liquid were then given to Joncol through a stomach tube.
"You're basically putting good bacteria in his stomach," reflects Nolan. "Now at the end of the day, maybe the whole thing has knocked him for six for the rest of the season, but he seems to be recovering great and we'd be hoping to get him back for Punchestown.
"To me, he's a future Gold Cup horse without a doubt. I knew at the start of this season that, the way he was working, he was a stone better than last season. And a stone better than last season, to me, puts him hopefully up with the best of them.
"We couldn't believe the way he was working the gallop. Then all of a sudden ... ."
If there is a dream, then maybe that is his. The Gold Cup in Toberona.
But, for now, ambition is more grounded. "Just to stay solvent," he says impassively. He's seen a lot of good people hit the wall lately and knows how tight the margins have become. Everyone hopes for a special horse to come clacking up the yard.
But the special ones are few and far between.
"The important thing is to be able to handle the bad days," he admits. "Because there will be far more of them. And if you can't handle them, don't get into it because it can be soul-destroying stuff. From the elation of being carried shoulder-high, everyone tapping you on the back and every camera in your face, to being the smallest worm underneath the shoe when you're beaten.
"This is the greatest hero-to-zero job. Basically, it's a job with six months' notice. There you are, if you don't perform in that time, he's gone somewhere else. It's ruthless.
"And it's worse it's getting because so many lads are pushed to the pin of their collar now after spending money on gallops and walkers and stuff like that. There's so much pressure. It's got to the stage where, if a horse is not good enough to run respectably in a maiden hurdle or bumper, you may as well get rid of it."
Whether the recession is slowing down, just losing its coherence or clearing its throat for another almighty roar, Cheltenham next week will be an enormous release for many.
No-one doubts the English yards will dominate, yet any Irish-trained winner will almost certainly result in a tricolour being tossed to the successful jockey. It has become a harmless affectation of the place in recent years and one that -- ultimately -- signifies little.
The vast bulk of winners tend to be ridden by Irish jockeys and, of course, some of the strongest English yards are run by Irishmen like Jonjo O'Neill and Ferdy Murphy. It is as if we cling to an illusion of nationalism because that is what we have been bred to do.
Nolan understands this. He admits to a soft spot for Glasgow Celtic for no other reason than it feels a natural affection. Yet, watching football reminds him too of how skewed professional sport has become.
He watched the recently sulphurous Old Firm battle and found himself struggling to reconcile how someone like El Hadji Diouf can still demand a massive salary given his history of recidivist petulance and underachievement.
"You know a jockey will be suspended for 21 days for making an innocent mistake," says Nolan. "And that suspension might mean he loses a big ride and never gets back on that horse. Yet, Diouf can go barging through police and take his shirt off, he can shoulder a Celtic water-carrier, all this stuff. It's unbelievable.
"But people are booing (Paul) Carberry on the way into the paddock if he misjudges something or if (Barry) Geraghty or Ruby misjudges something. Human error. They get booed coming into the weigh-room because there's a fiver each-way been lost on the horse or something like that.
"Or Roger Loughran at Leopardstown misjudges the winning post. You'd swear to Jaysus the lad had committed a crime.
"Yet, this individual Diouf can behave the way he does and no-one seems to think it's anything unusual. In my view, he should be made hand his money back and never let play again."
He is on his feet now, looking for the keys of the Mercedes. They're expecting him in Fermoy by half six. The evening is closing in on Toberona House.
Anyone got a map?