Thursday 27 July 2017

Fehily proves patience isn't his only virtue

Noel Fehily's ability to do the right thing came to the fore again this week, writes John O'Brien

M onday 10.0am, Paddington station, west London. The coolest man on the planet drank his coffee and, oblivious to the dizzying hum of shoppers and commuters, contemplated what it was like to ride several of the best steeplechasers in the world. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and admitted defeat, happy when his wife intervened and rode to his rescue. "If he was any more relaxed," Natasha Fehily laughed, "he'd be asleep."

The cast of his damaged left wrist was barely visible beneath his coat-sleeve. Natasha had driven them to Reading that morning and, at the station, they noticed the temperature dial was reading minus 11. "Good," he thought. Alone among racing people, the severe weather was his friend. The snow that had disrupted racing and closed gallops was giving his wrist time to heal. For Noel Fehily, however, the deadline was looming.

He had kept the severity of the injury a closely-guarded secret. He'd cancelled plans to ride at Exeter and Newbury the previous week, citing 'flu, although the truth was he simply needed more time to heal. The last thing Fehily needed was to become a rolling news story in the racing press. Ultimately, the test, he knew, was to be true to himself and Kauto Star's connections.

For two hours he had been an engaging companion, trawling through his career with the wit and maturity that would have drawn Paul Nicholls towards him the day Ruby Walsh broke his leg at Down Royal. Fehily had been riding out at Ditcheat since the summer and had ridden a winner for the stable the previous week. He was still as surprised as anyone to receive the call, but felt he'd done more than enough to earn the chance.

How far he'd come since he first started racing ponies around the Munster circuit at home when he was barely out of his teens. The family came from Dunmanway and, although he wished to be a jockey, Fehily knew west Cork wasn't fertile ground for his dreams. Dunmanway was indisputably GAA territory. Sam Maguire country. But he persisted and, in time, the locals would proudly hail him as "Dunmanway's first professional jockey."

As a young rider he'd spent a summer with David Nicholson at Jackdaws Castle. He loved working for The Duke, but the location, in the hills 20 miles outside Cheltenham, was inconvenient and the queue of jockeys ahead of him seemed endless: Adrian Maguire, Choc Thornton, Richard Johnson among them. He went back to ride point-to-points instead until, at 22, he signed up as an amateur for Charlie Mann.

Ah, the youthful, adrenaline-fuelled rush of those days. On Saturdays he would ride for Mann, dash to the boat to ride point-to-points in Ireland on Sunday and then travel through the night again to be back in Lambourn for work on Monday morning. "Looking back, it was all a bit mad," he remembered. "But at the time it seemed worth it. You didn't even think about it really."

And that was Fehily's story: honest, solid, dependable. In 2001, he was champion conditional. Soon after, when Richard Dunwoody retired, he was Mann's No 1. In 2005, he became second jockey to Jonjo O'Neill and the winners flowed in larger numbers. Yet, before Nicholls came calling, he had ridden just one Cheltenham winner, Silver Jaro in 2008, and one Grade One winner, Air Force Chief at Punchestown the same year. For a jockey of Fehily's obvious talent, it was an insulting statistic.

He figured he had paid his riding dues and now, at 35, the rewards were coming. He understood the business and his place in it. There were prodigies like McCoy and Walsh who were instant hits. Others dazzled early only for the fuse to fizzle out while others still took time to develop and mature. The years taught Fehily the blessed gift of patience. There were only so many good horses, he knew, and so many jockeys fighting for the privilege of riding them.

The grim irony is that the past year has cast him in the light of a chronically injury-prone jockey while the truth is markedly different. For years he had a relatively injury-clear run. This year he missed Cheltenham and Aintree for the first time due to a serious shoulder injury he suffered in January. And the wrist he damaged when falling at Newbury last month would be unremarkable had the consequences not been so catastrophic.

"People were starting to think that because I've missed so much time, I'm injury-prone," he said. "But I'm not. I haven't had a load of injuries. Just the ones I've had have taken so much time to heal. In comparison to other guys who've broken every bone in their body, I've been lucky touch wood. Just the ones I've had have been slow healers."

The latest one came with a brutal sense of timing. Last week he had sat on Kauto Star for the first time and relished the experience. "You could turn him on a saucer," he said. "So sharp. So relaxed." Like horse, like jockey. Fehily had ridden Master Minded at Ascot the previous month and admitted to feeling creased by nerves. The horse had to prove himself after disappointing at Cheltenham in March and he felt under trial for the ride on Kauto Star. They both passed with flying colours. Nothing about it fazed him: the enhanced scrutiny or the responsibility. This year he has ridden 46 times for Nicholls and won 17 races, a 37 per cent strike rate that is superior to all the trainer's jockeys, including Walsh. He sensed there were those waiting for him to mess up so they could be the first to say Nicholls should have gone for a higher profile jockey, but that didn't bother him. His daily routine remained the same. He was simply riding better horses and growing in confidence.

He told how he had spoken to Sam Thomas after Twist Magic's life-ending injury at Newbury a week previously and urged the young jockey to keep his spirits up. A couple of years ago, Thomas had been given the same chance as Fehily, but fared less successfully. Thomas had gone from being hailed a champion in waiting to a beaten docket virtually overnight, Fehily remembered. You learn quickly how fickle the business is. "You don't get carried away with the highs," he said, "and you cope with the lows better."

Now he himself will have to prove the wisdom of those words. There was little inkling on Monday that his week would turn out so miserably. He had a physio session booked in London that morning. The following day he would ride at Kempton, happy for a blow-out before the serious business of Christmas racing. The wrist would be stiff and sore, he guessed, but as long as he was fit to do himself justice, the pain didn't matter.

At Kempton, however, a terrible truth dawned. He rode two horses for Nicholls and the pain in his wrist became unbearable. Far from healing, the injury was getting worse. Inside the temptation must have gnawed away at him to keep his counsel, say nothing and hope he would be stronger and fitter by the weekend. How could he bluff a champion trainer like Nicholls though? And how could he deprive a beloved horse the optimum chance of making history it deserved?

On Tuesday night, he bumped into Mick Fitzgerald in a restaurant in Lambourn. "I'd have crawled around a room full of broken glass to ride Kauto Star," he said wistfully. "But if he got beat and I was the reason, how could I ever forgive myself?" In the maturity and integrity he showed in declaring himself unfit, Fehily alluded to the cruellest irony of all. For they were the very qualities that had alerted Nicholls in the first place.

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