This article was published in December 2014
NOEL Fehily has even more on his plate than most jockeys this Christmas, so it’s just as well the Dunmanway native is such a laidback - bordering on horizontal - individual.
For a start, he’s turning 39. Then there’s two and a half-year-old Niamh getting half an idea what’s going on this year. Santa will need to up his game.
Meanwhile, good rides have become common now, but the standout around this time is Silviniaco Conti’s bid to make it two-in-a-row in the King George VI Chase at Kempton next Friday.
If anything is likely to shake the famed equilibrium though, it is the expected arrival of child number two, with Natasha due on January 4th.
“It’s getting close now,” he laughs over the phone from Lambourn, his Cork lilt still evident after almost half a lifetime in England.
It is appropriate that the man with the seasonal name should have plenty to celebrate in the festive period.
Twelve months ago, Noel and Silviniaco Conti wore down a gallant Cue Card in the King George and it said much for the rider’s status that there was no fanfare surrounding his role.
It has been a slow burn of a career, owing much to grind and graft. Coming off his best season ever with 127 winners for 22 trainers, it is 14 years since he rode his first graded winner on the Charlie Mann-trained Moral Support at Chepstow.
He was champion conditional at the end of that season but it was 2008 before Tom Hogan’s Silver Jaro propelled him to his maiden Cheltenham Festival victory in the County Hurdle.
He only had to wait another month for his first Grade 1, with Air Force One (trained by Mann) in Punchestown’s Champion Novice Chase.
Since then Master Minded, Silviniaco Conti, For Non Stop, Aiteen Thirtythree, Sam Winner and Carraig Mor have been amongst the horses he has partnered to major successes.
Just a couple of weeks ago, he partnered the Paul Nicholls-trained Vibrato Valtat to claim a Grade 1 novice chase at Sandown. It was a peach of a ride on a tricky customer.
The Fehily feathers are hard to ruffle. There was a very brief time of despair when fate threw a whole box of tools into the works, but true to form, he knuckled down once more to take a seat at the top table. Rock On Ruby’s Champion Hurdle success in 2012 cemented the jockey’s status.
“It’s hard to say what was the actual break. It was just gradually getting there, getting there. Obviously winning a Champion Hurdle was a big plus. I won the County Hurdle a few years before.
“Things like that helped but there were lots of winners along the way. I rode some nice winners for Charlie Mann when I was riding for him, Air Force One and horses like that.
“Over the years, I’ve been banging away winners (but) it’s (about) getting on the real good stars every week, good horses on a regular basis, rather than having one or two good horses to ride.”
Mann has been a key figure in Fehily’s life, providing a job as an amateur in Berkshire in 1998, after the West Cork man’s short stint with David Nicholson.
He soon became the stable’s retained jockey and maintained that role throughout an injury-dogged term as Jonjo O’Neill’s number two.
Mann has described Fehily as “one of the best jockeys of all time”, much too good to be attached to a yard of his size and comparable to Ruby Walsh in his quietly effective style.
It has taken time but he is now a Saturday man, guaranteed his own big rides and the first port of call for Nicholls, McCain and King if their men are unavailable.
Indeed Silviniaco Conti is his ride despite the chaser being a Nicholls resident. The same happened with Rock On Ruby.
The Champion Hurdle was only his second ride on the horse.
They had won a listed bumper at Cheltenham 16 months previously but winning one of National Hunt’s Blue Riband events began an unbroken run that hit 13 with victory in the Relkeel Hurdle at the same track last Saturday.
It was when Walsh broke his leg in Down Royal in 2010 and Nicholls came calling, that he rocketed into the limelight. And yet, as good as that time was, it might have been better. It was a tantalising glimpse of the stratosphere.
He was riding out at Ditcheat and had already ridden a few winners for Nicholls when he was given the nod to ride Big Buck’s, Master Minded and Kauto Star in their impending engagements. Master Minded was first up in the Amlin Chase at Ascot. The focus could have been suffocating. It wasn’t.
“At the time I wasn’t too bothered. To be honest, it was probably only after I thought that there might have been plenty of pressure. At the time I was just going with it. I was glad to be riding him and enjoying it. I wasn’t feeling the pressure at the time.
“He was a great horse and I suppose he had a bit to prove himself. His form had dipped a bit and then he went and won the Amlin at Ascot, then I won the Tingle Creek on him. He was an amazing horse to ride. I suppose there was plenty of pressure but I think I coped with it alright,” he almost drawls, chuckling.
Behind the success on the big stage though, Fehily was attempting to hide the extent of a wrist injury from himself as much as anyone. He wasn’t long back from a five-week break forced by crushed vertebrae and a dislocated collarbone.
He had only been returned a short while from a six-month spell on the sidelines after tearing tendons off his shoulder before that.
The wrist forced him to miss Big Buck’s in the Long Walk and though he was back for those major successes on Master Minded, and some other nice pots, he eventually had to yield to the pain.
Although as he said in an interview afterwards “I’d have crawled around a room full of broken glass to ride Kauto Star”, he knew the right thing to do was tell Nicholls he wouldn’t be fit to do so in the King George. So he had an operation and spent another nine months laid off.
Such trials will test anyone and there was definitely a sense of an opportunity being taken away from him at that juncture. He would probably be Ditcheat’s main man now had he stayed sound.
He was missing out on some of the greatest racehorses in history. For a brief period, even his positive outlook was punctured. He thought he might be finished.
“When it happened, I was absolutely in bits. When I did my wrist, I was due to ride Big Buck’s the following day. I was due to ride Master Minded in the Tingle Creek a week later. I was due to ride Kauto Star in the King George. All those big rides to look forward to. I did get back to ride Master Minded in the Tingle Creek but that was a short spell and I was out for nine months.
“So obviously I was absolutely in pieces at the time… When the doctors told me that I would be out a minimum of six months when they operated, I thought ‘I’ll be doing well to come back from this’… When you’re off that long you soon get forgotten in this game and I thought I’d be doing well to come back from it, let alone come back to ride nice horses.
“So I was distraught about it at the time but I’ve never looked back on it and thought ‘What if?’ and I’m glad I don’t. I’d probably be bitter if I did. You’ve got to move on. It’s done. You can’t do anything about it.”
That attitude got him back into serious rehab. The positivity grew quickly and he ground it out once more. Nicholls remained a fan and came calling for Rock On Ruby when Walsh stuck with Hurricane Fly, who was defending his crown, and Daryl Jacob opted for Zarkandar in the Champion Hurdle. What a reward for patience, belief and hard work.
“It was a great day. I’ve had some very good days. Master Minded in the Tingle Creek, I really enjoyed. Obviously Rock On Ruby was absolutely fantastic winning a Champion Hurdle. Winning a King George last year. There’s been plenty good days but that was a special day. Winning a big race at the Cheltenham Festival; you dream about doing it and to go and do it was fantastic.”
Rock On Ruby is dear to Fehily’s heart as a result (“I absolutely love him to bits” he said after the Relkeel win). His old mucker’s willingness to crash through the pain barrier every time only adds to the depth of feeling. Never out of the first three in 16 runs over hurdles, and only twice in 23 career runs, he is special.
So too is Silviniaco Conti. When Walsh called time on his channel-hopping, it was Fehily who got the ride on the French-bred eight-year-old, having won twice on him over hurdles in that golden run before his wrist gave way.
That was at the insistence of part-owner Jared Sullivan, who switched his horses to Nicholls’ yard after a spat with Mann, but directed that Fehily get the nod if ever Walsh was unavailable.
Fehily reports all to be well ahead of the King George. Question marks were raised about the horse’s well-being when he almost stopped after the last in the Gold Cup, while his subsequent Aintree success in the Betfred Bowl was not what we had come to expect either in terms of finishing strongly.
A battery of tests revealed severe stomach ulcers that have since been treated, and with some head gear attached too it was the Silviniaco Conti of old in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He jumped, travelled and stayed on relentlessly.
It was a relief to find a cause because Cheltenham came as a huge shock. The jockey thought as he hit the front jumping the last that he had won.
“I did.” He laughs. “I did. But it soon changes up that Cheltenham hill. That’s why it’s the Cheltenham hill, isn’t it? The Gold Cup is hard to win.”
But to feel him stopping underneath you must have been the sickest feeling?
“When he ran at Kempton, all he did was stay. He jumped the third last and it looked like Cue Card had stolen a few lengths on him. All he did was grind it out and stay all the way to the line. I expected him to do the same. And that’s why we kicked on.
“We just thought he’d gallop to the line and he didn’t. Anyway, Paul found that there was a problem so it’s sorted out hopefully, and hopefully we’ll see a better horse this year.”
Finding the reason was a relief too because Fehily had wondered whether he had been mistaken in going into the lead, even though everything we had seen until then had suggested it was the right move.
“Whenever you get beat you always look back and think ‘Maybe I should have done something different.’ I did after but then when you look at his Kempton race, it’s hard to say that because all he did that day was stay and gallop to the line and it’s hard to say you should have done anything different then when you watch that race. Hopefully we can go back to Cheltenham and put it right, with a small bit of luck on our side.”
There can be a presumption that because fortunes have improved, the man has but Fehily doesn’t believe he is riding any better than he was 10 years ago.
Experience means he might ride a cleverer race he concedes, but you don’t become a Saturday man, or a Festival man, if you don’t have the better horses.
He has a strict training regime but that has nothing to do with getting older. He has always been conscientious about his fitness. The only concession has been swapping running for cycling and rowing, but that is due to the leg break suffered in a fall in the Grand National.
“Jump jockeys were retiring in their early thirties 10 or 15 years ago, whereas now they’re a lot fitter and get looked after a lot better. We’re very lucky here in Lambourn in that we’ve got Oaksey House. The fitness instructors there are great and you learn so much more about fitness, strength, what exercises you should do and what exercises you shouldn’t do.
“It’s very easy to say that you’re fit from riding horses every day but you’re not. If you’re riding horses every day you’re using muscles to ride a horse but there’s other muscles you’re not using.
“The instructors are very good at making you use the other muscles. It’s just all-round fitness, strength and conditioning. And that’s why jockeys are riding a lot longer.”
So healthy that there are no plans made for a future after race-riding?
“I don’t really think about it to be honest. I don’t know. I feel fit and well and I’ve no aches or pains, touch wood. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and as a lot of other jockeys say, it’s better than working!
“I love what I’m doing and I’m enjoying it so I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.
“Any day you go racing you can have a fall that can finish you but that can be the same for a 21-year-old as a 41-year-old. Every day you go racing it can happen.
“When I was younger I thought ‘Jesus, I’ll never ride past 35’ but I don’t feel any different now to when I was 30. I still feel fine. I’m still able to do the job anyway.”
No doubt about that.