Thursday 22 March 2018

Bondings: Winners in the love stakes

Trainer Noel Meade wasn't horsing around when he asked Derville Hoey out, and they trotted down the aisle two months ago

Stable match: Noel and Derville Meade were keeping their fingers crossed that one of his horses would win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday.
Stable match: Noel and Derville Meade were keeping their fingers crossed that one of his horses would win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday.
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Businesswoman Derville Hoey was enjoying the Kilbeggan races with her mum Ita when she got a call from renowned horse- trainer Noel Meade asking her to come down to the end of the racecourse, where his horse, Eirland, had fallen at the last fence. She feared the worst as the horse had been bred by her and was now owned by her brother-in-law, but when she got there, Noel asked her out on a date.

"The screens were put around the horse, so I went running down, but thankfully he got up and was fine," says Noel. "I rang Derville and asked her to come down, because I realised it was my only chance to get her alone. She came down worrying about the horse, thinking I was asking her permission to put him to sleep, but I said, 'He's grand, I just wanted to get you away from your mother so I can ask you out!"

Derville said yes, and returned to her mum in shock as she hadn't expected the invitation. They knew each other through racing, of course, and Noel had trained one of her foals, but it still came as a surprise. They went to the theatre on their first date, and things clearly went well as they were married eight weeks ago in Derville's hometown of Bellewstown.

While she had previous relationships, the glamorous Meath woman was single when they met, and had never really thought about having children as she was always so into the horses. The colourful Noel is two decades older and was divorced, and his 10-year marriage had also been annulled. He was in a 20-year relationship after that, which ended prior to him meeting Derville, and he has no children.

"I was totally surprised when Noel asked me out, but he is gorgeous, so kind and great fun," says Derville. "The age gap was a small concern in the beginning, but once we went out, it was no problem. Age is irrelevant anyway, as Noel is so young at heart and I can't keep up with him. He's party central. He's also a brilliant cook, and when I come home from work each day, my dinner is waiting. I am so spoiled."

The newlyweds are mad about horses and racing, and come from farming backgrounds. The musical Derville is in her early 40s, and is the younger of Ita and the late Pat's two daughters. She and her sister had ponies, and Derville also took up polo and still plays today. She became a concert pianist and taught music for a few years, and looked after the farm when her dad died. She studied equine science at University of Limerick as a mature student, and now owns Labstock Microservices, which serves the veterinary, laboratory and bloodstock industries. She bought it two years ago, having worked there since 2002.

Noel grew up in Castletown, Co Meath, on a 350-acre farm, and came fourth of the late Agnes and Patsy's six children. While his dad died in 1984 aged 84, his mum died only last year at the age of 100. Noel left school at 16 to run the farm as his father became ill, and at 17, he bought a racehorse, Tu Va, with a pal, Mick Condra.

This started the jovial Noel's career off as a trainer, and he established Tu Va Stables. He specialises in jumping horses, and passed the 2,000 winners mark in 2008 and is well on his way to 3,000. His big breakthrough came in 1978 when Sweet Mint won the Cork & Orrery Stakes at Royal Ascot. He says that winning the first Galway hurdle in 1981 with Pinch Hitter was huge for him, as was his first Cheltenham win with Sausalito Bay in 2000. He is also into Gaelic football, and gets some stick in other counties for painting his horse boxes in the Meath colours.

"I think Noel has something special about him, because apart from having a great eye, horses are so calm around him as he is so quiet and calm with them," says a proud Derville.

Noel says that he gets far more upset about losing horses than races, such as when Cardinal Hill developed colic and had to be put to sleep. "You can't allow yourself to get too attached to a horse, because unfortunately losing them can happen every day, but it still upsets me the most," he says. "I will keep training as long as I can because I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I think people can fade away when they retire, and I don't want that."

Noel is very excited about the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, which starts today and runs until Tuesday, with racing, music and family fun on the menu for the weekend. It's one of the highlights of the Irish racing calendar, and Noel has a few entries in tomorrow's Irish Grand National, including Very Wood, who won at Cheltenham last year, and Silver Tassie. Naturally, he is hoping for a winner. "It's a huge race and one of the biggest events of the year and I can't wait for it," he says. "Everyone in jump racing is looking forward to it."

Noel previously won the Grand National with Bunny Boiler, so when he and Derville named all the tables at their wedding reception after horses, there was naturally a Bunny Boiler table. They had a perfect day for their wedding at Tankardstown House in February but were unable to go on honeymoon because of festivals like Cheltenham and Fairyhouse, plus the fact that it's breeding season. They hope to remedy that in the summer.

Noel says that he thought Derville was beautiful, and once they started dating, he knew pretty early on that they would be together.

"I have never been this happy, settled and relaxed before, and it has been a ball since the time we first met," he smiles. "Derville comes racing with me every weekend, or whenever she has the chance, and it wouldn't be easy if we weren't both so interested in it. I take an interest in her business too, and listen to the ins and outs of her polo. We have quite a busy social life, and are always meeting friends."

And looking at this lovely newly-married couple, you get the sense that they have really backed a winner in each other.

Fairyhouse Easter Festival runs from today until Tuesday, and features the BoyleSports Irish Grand National tomorrow.

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