Donn's Articles » Paul Nolan

Paul Nolan

The day that Paul Nolan arrived in Jim Bolger’s yard, a young greenhorn dying to make his way in the world of racing, was the day that Aidan O’Brien left. There was nothing significant in that, no cause and effect at play, it was merely coincidental, pure happenstance.

Born on a farm just outside Enniscorthy in County Wexford, Nolan had left school when he was 15 and started to work on the family farm. He enjoyed the work, but gradually the realisation dawned that this was going to be a struggle. The lack of certainty was crippling, £80 for a lamb one week, £45 the following week. It didn’t make sense, he struggled to see how he could plan, how he could make a living. He started riding out at Jim Mernagh’s just down the road, he had always wanted to have a go at horses, and then moved to Bolger’s.

Nolan wasn’t your typical Bolger recruit, but the fact that he had played football for Wexford at minor and Under-21 level, and the fact that he was on the 1992 Wexford junior hurling team that beat Cork in the All-Ireland final was no liability at Coolcullen.

Nolan marveled at his colleagues, these little guys, the size of pencils, who had full control over the half-tonne of beast underneath them. He mucked out for four days, then got up on a horse and went as fast as he had ever gone up a gallop, clinging on, wondering if he was every going to stop. But he doesn’t under-estimate the steepness of his learning curve at Bolger’s, the knowledge and the experience that he gained has been invaluable.

And even these days, Jim Bolger is a good sparring partner. After a television documentary was screened on Nolan last year, Bolger told the Racing Post that he was embarrassed that a graduate of the Bolger academy could use such bad language; after it was reported that Bolger had succumbed to sleep on the morning that Teofilo drifted in the Guineas market, Nolan sent him an alarm clock.


It is only when you get up close beside Joncol that you realise how big he really is. He looks big in the parade ring, he even looks big on the racecourse, makes the fences look small, but stand in beside him in his box, and you have to stretch to put your hand on his withers.

“18 hands,” says Paul Nolan proudly, anticipating your question, as a father would tell you that his 15-year-old son, prospective inter-county midfielder, was 6ft tall.

Joncol has spent most of his life at Nolan’s. Bred by his owners Kay and Dan Browne, the son of Bob’s Return arrived at Toberona House as a young horse, and Nolan and his team set about preparing him for his point-to-point.

“I remember seeing him backing of the ramp here when he first arrived,” says the trainer. “A lovely horse with a lot of size and scope about him, and we realised very soon that he could be good. But we thought he was a four-year-old when he arrived. It wasn’t until we went to check his passport before his first race that we realised he was actually only three. It’s probably just as well, if I had realised that he was that young, I probably would have sent him home again. He’s so big, he really shouldn’t have been winning a race until he was eight.”

As it happened, Joncol ran in his first point-to-point at Dundrum before he had reached his fourth birthday. He unseated his rider there, but he made no mistake on his second attempt between the flags, beating a horse of Eric McNamara’s called Flemensford.

“I wasn’t at Ballindenisk that day,” recalls Nolan. “I was at Fairyhouse and, before I knew the result, I bumped into Eric McNamara. ‘Your fellow must be good,’ he told me, ‘because we think a lot of our fellow.’”

He ran in two bumpers after that, winning one and finishing second in the other, before embarking on his chasing career in the autumn of 2008. There was no point in wasting time over hurdles, Nolan figured. He had schooled him over the smaller obstacles, but he didn’t jump them well, he didn’t treat them with enough respect, little insignificant bothers that were only getting in the way and that didn’t really merit a jump. Fences were different, they were bigger, they deserved a jump, and Joncol enjoyed the challenge.

After winning his beginners’ chase and a Grade 2 chase at Naas, there was the obvious temptation to go to Cheltenham for the RSA Chase in March of 2009, but Nolan resisted.

“I just wasn’t didn’t think that Cheltenham was the right thing for him,” he says thoughtfully. “For such a young horse, I’m not sure that going up and down hills, especially on good ground, would have been the thing for him at the time.”

They stayed at home, won the Opera Hat Chase at Naas during Cheltenham week, then went on to the Grade 1 Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival that April, when he finished a close-up third behind Rare Bob.

“We were disappointed that he got beaten of course,” says Nolan, “but that wasn’t his running. He got cast in his box on the way to Punchestown that day, he pulled off a shoe and stood on the nail. We were 50-50 about running, he seemed to be okay, so we decided to let him run, but it wasn’t his running.”

At the beginning of last season, Nolan and the owners sat down and set out a plan: John Durkan Chase, Lexus Chase, Hennessy. Cheltenham didn’t feature. Maybe after the Hennessy they would have a re-think, but it wasn’t on the plan. Joncol won the John Durkan, finished third in the Lexus, then won the Hennessy – plan almost fully completed.

“The Lexus didn’t work out for us,” rues the trainer. “We were just too aggressive. It’s a long way home from the end of the back straight to the line at Leopardstown, and we just went for home too early. But we learned from that, we got it right in the Hennessy, which was brilliant. It was great to be up there among those great Hennessy winners, Florida Pearl, Jodami, Beef Or Salmon. It was the biggest win of my career for sure.”

The plan for Joncol this season is similar to last. His season gets under way in the Fortria Chase at Navan today. It’s going to be tough, taking on Big Zeb and Golden Silver over two miles, he will come on for the run, but it’s a good starting point. Then it’s John Durkan, Lexus, Hennessy. Again, Cheltenham is missing. It’s not that it’s off the agenda, it’s just not on it for now.

“It’s hard to go to Cheltenham after running in the Hennessy,” says Nolan slowly. “You only have a couple of weeks to recover from what is always a hard race. I’m not sure that Cheltenham would suit Joncol, and if we could win the big races here, if we could be like Beef Or Salmon, without ever winning at Cheltenham, I’d be more than happy.”

Besides Joncol, Nolan has plenty to look forward to this season. Shinrock Paddy was really impressive in winning at Naas last weekend, giving 20lb to the useful Son Amix, and now heads for the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Noble Prince was also impressive in winning on his chasing bow at Punchestown 10 days ago, and will go next for either the Craddockstown Chase or the Drinmore.

Exciting times, but mind the language.

© The Sunday Times, 7th November 2010