'It was a dark place – to come out the other side was a gift'
Pat Fahy is heading to Cheltenham with hopes of landing the RSA Chase but the tragic death of a young rider helps to keep things in perspective
Published 03/03/2014 | 02:30
Pat Fahy will be one of the few competitors to grace Cheltenham racecourse's hallowed arena next week and not be consumed by what it throws at him.
Few elite sporting domains trigger such a range of emotions, be it the heady euphoria of victory or the sheer devastation of defeat. Fahy, though, is Kipling-esque in terms of how he expects to greet either of those twin impostors, triumph and disaster – just the same.
"We have been there before and won't get too excited," the trainer says of his live RSA Chase contender Morning Assembly in his reassuringly droll monotone.
"This horse is for (owner) Steve Parkin and his connections. They aren't putting me under any pressure and I am not going to put myself under any either. One way or another, we will enjoy every minute of it.
"If we don't win in Cheltenham, it doesn't mean we won't win somewhere else. Maybe for some trainers it would be different, but that day is gone for me. I have been through the mill and I look at things completely differently now. I am happy just to be going over there."
Fahy's frank philosophical bearing can be traced back to a tragedy that occurred at his Leighlinbridge yard in Co Carlow four years ago. Ronan Lawlor was an aspiring 21-year-old jockey who was killed after being thrown from a horse at his Ellen Lodge stables.
Ever since he could sit on a horse, Lawlor had been part of the furniture at Fahy's, and his death hung like a dark cloud over the trainer's head. The trauma affected him profoundly.
"It's hard to describe what I went through afterwards," he strives to explain.
"It was a dark place. To come out of it and see the other side, to get a second run at it – it was gifted to me. That's the only way I could describe it.
"It wasn't that anyone healed me or anything, I was just lucky, I think. The people that are around me now, they are the people that dug into the trenches and backed me.
" I don't have to prove anything to them. They are there because they want to be there, and they are the people I want to have around me from now on."
As Fahy retreated into himself, results spiralled downward. It was four months after Lawlor's passing that he saddled another winner, and just 14 over the next three seasons constituted his worst yield in a distinguished 22-year career.
Coinciding as it did with the height of the recession, it was a perfect storm that he readily concedes he might not have weathered but for the staunch support of his wife Natalie.
"Natalie kept me going – it would have probably folded if it wasn't for her," he admits openly of an operation renowned for its progressive versatility.
"I couldn't have continued at it – there was a point where I couldn't have continued at anything. I wasn't well, but Natalie kept me going and kept things going in the yard.
"She worked hard, and then it was left for me, as I was getting better, to just go and train the horses – stand on the gallop or do whatever I had to do."
Poignantly, Fahy also credits the Lawlor family for helping him come to terms with his emotional despair, despite their own grief.
"It was the worst tragedy in the world, or in my world anyway, but at the same time I was awfully lucky," he reveals.
"Ronan's parents, his cousins, his aunts and uncles were all so good to me. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be around now – that is a certainty. I was hanging on, and not every family in their situation would have been so understanding."
Gradually, the 54-year-old Athenry native shook off his melancholy state.
A couple of smart Flat horses like Ballybacka Lady and Ballybacka Queen had done more than their fair share to keep his name relevant, as he carefully managed two nascent National Hunt talents.
Morning Assembly was one, Western Boy the other. Fahy might have saddled a paltry three jumps winners last term – his worst tally since his first winning season 20 years earlier – but the last one was a Grade One, Morning Assembly providing his first at the highest level since Mariah Rollins' Leopardstown coup 10 years ago and just his third in all.
Ever since making a successful Punchestown bumper debut under Fahy's son Conor in 2012, the Shantou gelding had promised the world.
He duly progressed to see off fellow RSA hopeful Ballycasey in the three-mile Grade One novices' hurdle at Punchestown last spring.
That he was in a position to do so was a testament to Fahy's new-found perspective and the renowned insight of Davy Russell, whose blunt assessment of a Leopardstown gallop exactly 12 months ago proved critical. Then, as now, Cheltenham wasn't the be all and end all. "Davy thought the solid world of the horse from the first day he sat on him," Fahy says, "and we were always guided by him. A year ago, after he had won the maiden hurdle at Naas on Morning Assembly, we were going to Cheltenham. Then we worked him at Leopardstown and Davy wasn't happy.
"He got down off him and said, 'that's not good enough at all, Pat'. We listened to what we were being told and gave the horse time to recover.
"We went up there and achieved what we set out to – to find out exactly where the horse was at the time.
"Davy just wasn't getting the right vibes from him. He knew. It sounds great now but it wasn't simple at the time. Still, it's probably why we got the Grade One win in the end."
That and a whole lot more. Now Fahy has got a horse, as Morning Assembly has thrived this term after being given that time to mature, something that wouldn't have been guaranteed if he had the guts dragged out of him when less than 100pc at Prestbury Park last March.
He thwarted Don Cossack in a Punchestown Grade Two in October, and then split Carlingford Lough and Foxrock under Ruby Walsh in an epic Leopardstown Grade One at Christmas. An out-and-out galloper and sound jumper, he is tailor-made for the gruelling RSA test.
"With stamina as his forte, the gallop that he will get in the RSA will suit," Fahy reckons, "and the ground won't matter either way. There were good horses like Foxrock behind him at Leopardstown and they weren't in the same league on the day, so I was very happy with him." Western Boy was also beaten last time, but not before giving the highly regarded Vautour a hell of a fright at Punchestown in January.
He heads for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle now as a dark horse of real merit, and Stack The Deck (Champion Bumper) and Thelobstercatcher (Kim Muir) are the others likely to be charged with delivering Fahy a first Festival success.
If one of them were to oblige on the grandest stage of all, it would be an overdue accolade for a man who has enjoyed many memorable days elsewhere with the likes of Butches Boy, Nuaffe, Mariah Rollins, Publican and Quadco. If not, though, it won't put him up or down.
Pat Fahy has seen too much for that, and doubtless derives enough satisfaction from seeing his horses consistently excel once more. A running tally of nine winners has him within one of 2009's final haul of 10, with a 12pc strike-rate his most productive in 20 years.
Everything is as it should be. He doesn't need a Cheltenham Festival victory to feather the cap of his personal revival, though he doesn't deny that he would be happy to see how such a development might make others happy.
"It would be great for the people that have supported me," he concedes somewhat selflessly, "for the people who sent me a text or picked up the phone when things were bad.
"It's amazing how quickly you find yourself on your own when things go wrong, so for those people who stuck by me, for them to feel part of a winner at Cheltenham, that would be nice."