Thursday 24 May 2018

Twists and turns on road to Aintree

Morning Assembly's bid for the Grand National has helped Fahy through some very tough times

‘Ronan Lawlor will be there with Pat and his family. They would not be in Liverpool and Morning Assembly would not have come into his yard were it not for Ronan’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Ronan Lawlor will be there with Pat and his family. They would not be in Liverpool and Morning Assembly would not have come into his yard were it not for Ronan’ Photo: Sportsfile

Aisling Crowe

From the hurling fields of Athenry to the most famed and feared obstacles in Aintree, that is the journey Pat Fahy is on. The best trips, the ones which provide tales to store up for when you get home, experiences that linger long in the memory after the light has faded, are never the most straightforward. They take a diversion or 10, meandering along their own path, not adhering strictly to any map or route.

Pat Fahy's long and winding road to Liverpool is certainly a journey with tales worth telling. The places, the people and the horses who have brought him to the Grand National along with passions that animate his life - horses, music, history, family - make him who he is.

He came to Leighlinbridge to work, intending to stay a few months. That was more than 30 years ago. He never left. Instead he married a local girl, Nathalie Sawyer, and they have a son and daughter Connor and Niamh. Eventually he took out a trainer's licence. The horses tell many chapters of the story.

"Nuaaf won the Thyestes, he was second in an Irish National, won the Hennessy and if he could jump consistently he would have done even more. He just bulldozed through fences. Butches Boy won the Heineken Gold Cup at Punchestown. Mariah Rollins was a Grade One winner over fences, we've been lucky to have had some good horses here," he remarks.

Then came Morning Assembly. There is no telling of his story, no run in next Saturday's Grand National, without mentioning Ronan Lawlor.

Six years ago, on February 16, the 21-year-old jockey lost his life in an accident on the gallops while doing riding work for Fahy. He was a neighbour and had been riding for him for years. It happened only feet away from the trainer, but there was nothing he could do. Ronan had been a part of his life, part of the family at Ellen Lodge, since he was just 12 and was a good friend of Fahy's son Connor, his loss plunged the trainer into the ghost world, where he remained a phantom for three long years.

"I was not in the best of shape," Fahy recalls. "I was awful depressed and it never lifted. This terrible low feeling would not go away. I'd go out to the gallops and watch the horses working but I wasn't really there. Nathalie and the staff were brilliant, they kept everything together, kept it going really."

Depression is a vampire. It sucks the life from you, draining you of energy, joy and vivacity. Voracious in its appetite, the vampire will not stop. It steals your hopes, your dreams, your future, leaving you a hollowed-out shell, a 3D printing of the person you used to be. You find yourself playing the part of you, piecing together fragments and remnants to remind you of the character you were before depression made you its captive.

A year after Ronan's death, Fahy trained his biggest winner on the flat but he was unable to enjoy it. Victory for Ballybacka Lady in the 1,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown and Morning Assembly's Grade One win at Punchestown were ambitions realised, but he no longer cradled dreams in his heart. Fulfilling a lifelong dream will not drive a stake through the heart of the vampire.

"They were winners that I had been dreaming of all my life," he says quietly. "After Morning Assembly won, I thought I would feel great but there was a hole in life and it didn't fill it, didn't change a thing. It was great for Nathalie and all at home but the next day I still wanted to disappear, just like I had on the day Morning Assembly won and every day."

Steve Parkin, who owns Clipper Logistics, knew Fahy through his neighbour Joe Foley of Ballyhane Stud in Leighlinbridge. Parkin had enjoyed Group One success on the Flat but decided to buy a jumper to send to Pat, trying to perk him up.

"Gerry Hogan (bloodstock agent) got the job of picking him out. He was in the August sale and we all agreed on him. We bought him as an unbroken four-year-old and he won his bumper first time out the following February."

A remarkable achievement in a few months, promising much for his future career. Morning Assembly's defeat of Ballycasey and Inish Island in the three-mile Grade One novice hurdle at the 2013 Punchestown Festival, may not have been the anticipated result for the punters in attendance but it was not a surprise for those who knew the horse.

His second novice chase victory at Punchestown six months later became more notable recently for the vanquished. Headed by Don Cossack, Fahy's star knuckled down to claw his way back into the lead, dimming the second's lustre much to the chagrin of connections who had already made their high opinion of the horse public. Last month Don Cossack won the Gold Cup with supreme superiority.

"He missed the last that day and Don Cossack had the lead on us but Morning Assembly and Ruby battled back. It was a great win," Fahy remarks.

At that same Cheltenham Festival, Morning Assembly was fourth in the Ultima Handicap Chase. Their careers have diverged a little since that winter's afternoon at Punchestown because of injury. A fractured bone in a hind foot later that season kept Morning Assembly off the track until January of this year. The fear that stalks all rehabilitation from serious injury, of never recapturing the glory days, seems to have dissipated with each passing performance.

Fahy says of that Cheltenham fourth: "It was a great run. He over-jumped the third last and winded himself so Davy gave him time to get his balance back and kicked on again. It was a lovely run."

Russell was sufficiently impressed to commit to riding Morning Assembly in next Saturday's Aintree Grand National. The dual Irish Champion jockey has contributed to the nine-year-old's preparations with advice. The weeks leading up to Aintree are almost as lethal for the spruce populations near trainers' yards as Christmas but Russell does not believe Morning Assembly needs to warm up for Aintree's fearsome challenge by jumping the Grand National fences on the Curragh's schooling grounds.

"I asked Davy if I should school him over Aintree fences and he said no, that he jumps big and he wants the horse slick for Aintree so I should school him over hurdles. He'll go down and let fly at a few hurdles to sharpen him up. You don't argue with the master," he smiles.

Victory on Saturday would, in many respects, be the biggest of Fahy's career, but the greatest prize of all has already been won. Dawn finally broke through and the vampire burned in the light. No longer a ghost haunting his own life, Fahy fully inhabits this world now.

Hopes and dreams have been returned, not exactly as they were, for nothing can ever be the same when you come back.

The tweaks made to the Grand National have done much to eradicate the danger and the chaos. It is no longer the lottery it once was although hitting the jackpot still requires luck on your side.

"If we get him back to his best then I think he goes there with a good chance," Fahy asserts. "He is only nine, has a decent weight and is lightly-raced. You need a lot of luck for the National but the form tends to hold up at Aintree. Look at Bobbyjo - he won the Irish National before winning there and Papillion was second at Fairyhouse and went on to win the National. Rough Quest was third in a Gold Cup the year he won the National, and last year Many Clouds had already won the Hennessy and Cotswolds Chase and was favourite for the Gold Cup before he won this race."

Ronan Lawlor will be there with Pat and his family. They would not be in Liverpool and Morning Assembly would not have come into his yard were it not for Ronan.

The twists and turns on the road from Athenry to Aintree are many and in Galway, Carlow and America many will wish for Fahy's next step to be Morning Assembly and Davy Russell galloping past the elbow to glory on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport