Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 17 December 2017

Noel Fehily: 11 years to become an overnight sensation

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

It is a sign of how far Noel Fehily has come over the past six weeks that he might yet look back on missing the Long Distance Hurdle-winning ride on Big Buck's as an inconsequential blip.

The suspected broken wrist that cost him the steering job on the champion staying hurdler at Newbury last Saturday has turned out to be a mere strain, and the subsequent big chill has meant that he hasn't missed another day's racing.

Fehily could even be ready for a return to action before the action returns. There is a possibility that he will, after all, now partner Master Minded in the Tingle Creek, with the Grade One due to be rescheduled for Cheltenham next weekend. Most importantly of all, his date with destiny on Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase is back on.

"It's improving every day," Fehily said of the injury on Wednesday. "There's not a lot I can do with it as regards physio yet, but if I can get back riding out by next Wednesday or Thursday, then there's every chance I'll be back for next weekend."

Amid the drama that has engulfed the rider since Paul Nicholls confirmed him for the precious St Stephen's Day mount on Kauto Star, it is easy to forget how little fanfare that announcement generated last Tuesday week. In a sense, that's the real story.

Within hours of Ruby Walsh breaking his leg after winning on Kauto Star at Down Royal a month ago, bookies went long odds-on about Tony McCoy replacing him on the horse that will bid for an unprecedented fifth win in the Christmas highlight. Fehily didn't feature in the market -- unless you include the 'other jockey' option.

And yet, that evening, it was Fehily whom Nicholls rang to ask if he would be interested in riding a bit more for him now that Walsh was out. Fancy that. Of all the shooters in town, Nicholls sought out Fehily, a man who had ridden for him only three times previously and who could hardly be described as a big-race regular.

Why? Probably for a number of reasons, not least availability, but mainly because the champion trainer had learned how reliable a shot the Co Cork-born rider is.

After Fehily steered Master Minded to a flawless rout at Ascot two weeks ago, Nicholls used two adjectives to explain what it was that made him the most suitable candidate.

He was, Nicholls said, "experienced and unassuming". Starting with Cheltenham three weeks ago, Nicholls knew there were going to be some big Saturday targets that needed a steady hand to replace Walsh's over the next few months, and he knew what he would get with Fehily -- unflappable dependability.


Nicholls had been burned by jockey shortcomings in Walsh's absence in the past, but he fancied Fehily as the type of character that wouldn't get dazzled by the headlights. Notwithstanding the rider's injury scare, it has proved an inspired choice.

"It makes life an awful lot easier when you are riding good horses and they are winning," Fehily says modestly of the run that saw him ride 15 winners for Nicholls in five weeks. "You ride with more confidence, and things just happen for you."

That may be true, but he has flourished under the responsibility bestowed on him, which is why news of his booking on Kauto Star last week raised so few eyebrows.

At Cheltenham's Open meeting the new affiliation recorded a double, before Fehily's Ascot masterclass on Master Minded effectively brought to an end the question of who would be entrusted with the prized mount on the dual Gold Cup hero.

Displaying the type of quiet simplicity in the saddle that is reminiscent of Walsh at his best, the 34-year-old delivered amid huge expectation. For good measure, he went on to complete a quick-fire treble for Nicholls on Silviniaco Conti and Woolcombe Folly.

Some 11 years after joining the paid ranks, Noel Fehily had become an overnight sensation.

"Horses like Master Minded and Silviniaco Conti are the ones everyone wants to ride," he affirms in the understated manner that defines his entire being. "They are proper Saturday horses. I'd watched Master Minded for years, so to get a chance on him was unbelievable. He just gallops down to a fence as if it's not there, and then picks up his knees at the last second -- pure class."

Riding classy horses is not an entirely new experience for Fehily. Since winning the conditional jockeys' championship in 2001, he has enjoyed good days on the likes of Celibate, Moral Support, Crack Away Jack and Air Force One.

The latter provided him with his sole Grade One triumph for Charlie Mann at Punchestown in 2008, the same year he rode his only Cheltenham Festival winner on Tom Hogan's Silver Jaro.

Fehily has been Mann's first-choice rider since Richard Dunwoody retired 10 years ago, and his appointment as Tony McCoy's understudy at Jonjo O'Neill's in 2005 looked sure to take him to the next level. In a way, it did.

He finished fourth in the jockeys' table in 2009 with 89 winners, and he gained increased exposure and better rides. Still, McCoy's unmovable presence impeded further progress, as did a catalogue of injuries.

This year alone, Fehily spent six months on the sidelines after tearing the tendons off his right shoulder. In August, a month after his return, he endured another five weeks off with a bruised spine and fractured collarbone.

By the time he resumed at the end of September, Richie McLernon had overtaken him in the pecking order at Jonjo's. Finally, though, it was his turn to catch a break, one that will scarcely be diminished by Saturday's loss if normal service resumes next week.

"It came at a good time for me because I needed good horses to ride," Fehily reveals of the initial call from Nicholls. Asked if he feared an opportunity of this magnitude had passed him by given that this month he turns 35 -- the age jump jockeys put down as their likely retirement age on pension scheme applications -- he is unequivocal.

"Well I definitely wasn't thinking it had passed me by anyway!" he retorts, mildly offended at the suggestion. "I suppose you're always hoping another good horse will come along -- when you stop thinking that, you probably wouldn't keep going."

The real difference now for Fehily is that he has a stable full of good horses to ride. It may only be an interim arrangement, but that's not the point.

And it is a privilege that befits a talent that has for so long evoked unwavering faith and respect from those closest to him. When Fehily first moved from his west Cork home in Castletownkenna to Mann's as an amateur back in 1998, a band of elite local point-to-point handlers couldn't do without flying him home to ride every weekend.

Mann, who can be notoriously outspoken, quickly developed a similar dependence, one that also prevails within the ranks of his owners -- even when they leave.

Fehily's first ride for Nicholls came when he steered Twist Magic, part owned by individuals for whom he had ridden at Mann's, into third in last year's Haldon Gold Cup.

His second came in October when he sluiced home on Silviniaco Conti at Chepstow, a horse whose owner Jared Sullivan withdrew his entire string from Mann's after a dust-up in the summer. On placing the majority of them with Nicholls subsequently, Sullivan made it clear who was to steer should Walsh ever be unavailable.

On that afternoon at Chepstow, Walsh was suspended, and Nicholls has since been smitten. Roll on the thaw.

Irish Independent

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