Fogarty jumps to attention
Wexford native has stepped up to the plate in style, writes Richard Forristal
At the start of the season, a hypothetical shortlist of riders that Willie Mullins might call on were Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend temporarily unavailable would nearly have picked itself.
The champion trainer's son Patrick, his nephew Emmet and David Casey would all have been on it. Davy Russell and Andrew Lynch would have been thereabouts due to their respective associations with two of the insatiable Carlow stable's leading owners, likewise AP McCoy when available.
Go back six months to the autumn and the prospective substitutes would be the same; three months ago, in light of developments, Bryan Cooper might have preceded Russell in the pecking order.
There would have been little difference even at the beginning of this month, but Emmet Mullins' duty as travelling companion to Simenon on his international forays would ultimately open a door.
Step forward Mikey Fogarty. In the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle at Cheltenham that Emmet won on Sir Des Champs in 2011, Fogarty got the nod for Mullins' smart novice, Don Poli.
He gave him a peach, easing patiently through from the rear to lead at the last en route to a decisive victory. "Mikey listened to what we were saying about the horse and took it all in," Mullins says understatedly of the rider's performance. "He acted very coolly, which was impressive."
On a dizzy Cotswolds afternoon for the raiders, the 24-year-old had secured his first Festival winner. Maybe more than that, though, he had taken his chance on the big stage for Mullins.
With Walsh and Townend injured earlier the same day, all of a sudden Fogarty had put himself in the conversation for blue-chip spares. It was a discussion he would hardly have figured in before, though the Mullins cousins' globe-trotting had led to a rare opportunity last summer.
As Patrick chased the Lions around Australia, Fogarty plundered two amateur riders' Flat races for his father on Digeanta. He accrued nine days' worth of bans in the process, but, in the greater scheme of things, that was a small price to pay for pleasing jump racing's presiding doyen.
After Cheltenham, on the St Patrick's Day card that he soared to a stupendous 263/1 treble at his local Wexford venue, Fogarty's only beaten mount was Mullins' Popcorn. The irony of that reversal was put right when he steered Mikael D'Haguenet to a smooth Thurles win on Thursday.
A lack of confidence in the enigmatic 10-year-old saw him usurped at the off by his David Casey-ridden stable-mate Mourad as favourite, but there was little doubt to neutral observers that Fogarty had just been rewarded with a booking on the Mullins first string.
That is some commendation, one that capped a whirlwind six months in which we have seen him make a seamless transition from the amateur regiment to the professional discipline.
In short, Fogarty's emergence has been one of the most fascinating human strands to the entire season.
Hugely respected as both a point-to-point rider and for his track savvy, he is the most accomplished amateur to make the switch for 10 years, so he is no precocious fly-by-night. All the same, there was no guarantee that he would prove such a hit.
"It was a gamble on his part," Mullins reaffirms, "especially at a time when there are a lot fewer rides going. He took the plunge and it has come off for him. Getting up on strange horses seems to be natural to him, and that is a vital skill as a professional. He clearly has a good grasp of race-riding."
A combination of injuries and a square frame that has restricted Fogarty to a minimum riding weight of 10st 4lb in recent times meant that the sensible thing for him to do was to get through his claim as an amateur. He did that and more, netting high-profile wins at Galway, the Curragh and Punchestown with trademark panache that is somehow in keeping with his flowing blond locks.
A graduate of St Peter's College in Wexford, Fogarty still plays senior hurling with St Anne's. An educational stint at Jim Bolger's was followed by a couple of years with Colm Murphy, and he continues to maintain strong links with locals like Murphy, Paul Nolan, Liz Doyle and Colin Bowe.
His easy-going demeanour and broad smile were there for all to see when he raised the Irish and Wexford flags aloft aboard Don Poli in the Prestbury Park winner's enclosure.
He has generally kept his own counsel in terms of dealing with the media, but the inevitable exposure that comes with the level of success he is enjoying will eventually reveal a refreshingly engaging personality.
"Having Mikey to call on opens up other options for me, which is what you always want," Mullins says now of his latest protege.
"He has been riding out frequently for me for some time, and is great around the yard. His input at home is always good – he is always looking for something to do. There is a lot of quality to the guy, and he is a very good rider, obviously."
Despite being eligible to compete as a conditional across the water, Fogarty isn't granted the same allowance here. With that in mind, to generate the momentum that he has from a standing start in such a competitive environment against senior pros really is some feat.
Townend's return later this week will obviously alleviate Fogarty's newfound status within the Mullins hierarchy, but he has made a bold pitch for future consideration. That's all anyone can do.
Cooper excelled when deputising for Davy Russell in recent years, eventually usurping the brilliant champion jockey as Gigginstown's first-choice rider. To many seasoned racing folk, demoting Russell and forfeiting all those years of big-race experience was an inexplicable decision.
However premature, though, it was also somewhat inevitable given Cooper's flawless super-sub displays. Of course, things came full circle for Russell when, 12 months after his fresh-faced colleague stood in for him at Cheltenham after he suffered a punctured lung, he was gifted a pair of Festival winners in the maroon and white silks on that heady finale last Friday week.
Russell is often heard to pronounce that "what's for you won't pass you", and his euphoric Gold Cup-winning afternoon appeared to be written. Still, it also served to further illustrate the point that injuries are such a critical part of the game in terms of what they can give and take away.
Others' losses have certainly contributed to Fogarty's recent short-term gain. Nonetheless, his efforts over the previous six months provided a springboard.
When he turned professional in September, he had just four wins to show for the first five months of the jumps campaign.
He accrued 13 in his new guise before the year's end, and his March spree checks in at seven, plus three in Britain for a running tally of 29, two more than he ever aggregated in a season before, with a Cheltenham Festival win the crowning glory.
That constitutes some vindication of Fogarty's leap into the unknown. He took himself out of his comfort zone, yet the biggest compliment you could pay him is that it has never looked that way.