Fehily arrives on cue to reign on Silviniaco
NO jockey in the weighing room was more deserving of a big-race winner such as at yesterday's William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton Park than Noel Fehily, who displayed commendable judgment and persistence on the grand stayer Silviniaco Conti.
Renowned as a superb horseman, the Corkman called on skills that boosted his reputation as "the closest thing to Ruby Walsh in England".
Three years ago, Fehily (38) was forced to miss a scheduled ride on Kauto Star in the King George after sustaining a badly broken wrist in a fall at Newbury several weeks before the big day. Complications with ligaments kept him on the sidelines for nine months.
"When something like that happens, you don't think you'll ever get another chance," Fehily said. "This means a lot to me. I grew up watching Desert Orchid in the King George, and now I've won it myself."
It certainly made up for the time lost through not only the smashed wrist, but also six months for a shoulder injury, and another six months with a broken leg.
It is no wonder that Fehily, the son of a Cork farmer, could never get going long enough to make his mark in recent seasons. His big-race wins include a Tingle Creek Chase aboard Master Minded and a Champion Hurdle on Rock On Ruby, but the interruptions because of broken bones and other scrapes cost him dearly.
Run at a solid pace throughout, this King George was further proof that Kempton's three-mile trip is as exacting as anywhere in England.
Stamina in the very soft ground won it for Silviniaco Conti, whose victory in the 2012 Betfair Chase at Haydock had offered a glimpse of his potential. He then fell three out when travelling well in Bobs Worth's Gold Cup last March, and his runs since have been respectable if unspectacular.
Fehily had a plan, and that was to stick close to trailblazing Cue Card right from the off. He was at his girth most of the way. Three fences out, as the bold-jumping Cue Card kicked for home, Fehily believed his winning chance had evaporated, yet a dozen strides later he knew he was back in the fight with every likelihood of overhauling the leader, which was suddenly coming back to him.
"He (Silviniaco Conti) was staying on. He's so tough," Fehily reflected.
With renewed enthusiasm, the seven-year-old raced to Cue Card and took it up before the last of the 18 fences and galloped on to win by three and a half lengths in a manner so convincing that most bookmakers quickly elevated him to Gold Cup favouritism.
It would be stupid to question Cue Card, whose jumping was superb at various stages, and very difficult to argue that he did not stay.
He battled on gamely for his second place, and while the winner jumped to the top rung of ante-post betting lists for the Gold Cup, logically there should not be much between the first two on better ground, though Fehily believes Silviniaco Conti would go even better. "It was soft enough for him," he said.
Sceptics will want to erase Cue Card from the Gold Cup, and dispatch him immediately to the Ryanair, which he won at the last Cheltenham Festival.
But there is much soul-searching to be done before connections commit to a target and Cue Card's jumping prowess and overall class are two factors that will weigh heavily in favour of another clash with Silviniaco Conti over an extended three miles.
That Fehily should land another major prize for Nicholls when Daryl Jacob is fighting to consolidate his role as the stable's No 1 jockey is timely, if a little unsettling, for the incumbent.
There are plenty of horses to go round, but Silviniaco Conti will now be a flagship horse for the Nicholls yard, and the first jockey would not be human if he did not want to be on him.
The Nicholls-trained Al Ferof stayed on well for third and may well press on to realise his owner John Hales' ambition to run him in the Gold Cup.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Mount Benbulben battled on for fourth, but arguably the biggest disappointment was the David Pipe-trained Dynaste, which weakened to finish last of the five finishers.
Riverside Theatre unseated Barry Geraghty at the fifth, where Champion Court was hampered and unseated Ian Popham.
The biggest surprise was Long Run unseating Sam Waley-Cohen at the last fence when well held. The dual King George winner, which was visored for the first time, had sat third throughout and been kept wide by his rider for most of the way. (© Daily Telegraph, London)