Donn's Articles » Philip Fenton

Philip Fenton

Last year, different story. Dunguib was the hottest property since the Berkeley Court Hotel. On his way back to Cheltenham, the scene of the Demolition Derby that was the 2009 Champion Bumper, the returning champion, unbeaten over hurdles, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle his for the winning. They lined the streets with palm branches and ante post dockets, they placed the Irish Banker crown firmly on his head, they wrote feature articles and made movies and documentaries, and all they asked was how far.

“D’you see what you’ll do now,” said one vox pop punter. “You’ll put away that camera and you’ll go down to the bank in the town centre, you’ll get as much money out as they will give you, and you’ll come back up here and have it on Dunguib. You wouldn’t get a better interest rate from Anglo Irish.”

Philip Fenton wasn’t fazed. He didn’t bask in the warmth of the lights and the cameras, but he didn’t melt in it either. You train the Irish banker at Cheltenham, you are in demand. Deal with it. The most important thing was that the attention didn’t interfere with the horse, that Dunguib’s preparation for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle wasn’t affected by the media attention, and it wasn’t.

Fenton’s main concern on the day was that Dunguib would settle into his race, that he would drop the bridle and relax in the early stages, that he wouldn’t expend energy needlessly. He talked tactics with Dunguib’s young rider Brian O’Connell. Don’t be too anxious to be too handy in the early stages, just get him moving easily, get him relaxed.

The trainer watched on the big screen in the parade ring as O’Connell settled Dunguib towards the rear, towards the outside. His jumping wasn’t bad, but the problem was that the pace wasn’t fast through the middle section of the race. When they did quicken on the run down the hill to the second last, Dunguib was just a little further back than ideal. Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here got dream runs around the inside, while Dunguib had to race seven or eight horse-widths wide around the home turn and then make his ground into a quickening pace. He made up some ground, but not enough, and ultimately finished third, two lengths behind Menorah.

“Of course we were disappointed that we got beaten,” recalls Fenton now from the far side of his kitchen table. “But he still ran a big race. Tactically the race didn’t work out for us. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Despite plenty of conjecture, Brian O’Connell is Dunguib’s rider. The youngster came in for plenty of criticism for that ride in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year, for being too far back, for being too wide, for not moving early enough, but Fenton is relaxed about the whole thing. It wasn’t his rider’s finest hour, he admits, but he still didn’t do a whole lot wrong. The race didn’t work out for them, it happens sometimes.

O’Connell has ridden Dunguib in all of his 12 races. He knows the horse intimately, he gets on well with him. O’Connell will ride him in the Champion Hurdle in nine days’ time. That will be his 13th.

Dunguib is not bred to be a champion. Fenton admits that you have to dig deep down his pedigree page to find some quality. Indeed, it was down to pure happenstance that the horse ended up with Fenton at all. Dunguib’s owners, Dan Harnett and Lily Lawlor, bought him as a foal at Tattersalls Ireland in 2003 with a view to selling him on as a three-year-old, as they had with many horses before. However, Dunguib failed to make his reserve at public auction, nobody wanted him, so the owners decided to put him into training with Fenton.

“We thought that he was a nice horse from early on,” says the trainer. “Even before he made his debut for us at Punchestown in April 2008, we thought that he could be good. He finished second that day to On Raglan Road, a good horse of Timmy Hyde’s that Graham Wylie subsequently bought. That summer we were thinking that we could have a really nice horse on our hands. Of course, we couldn’t have dreamt that he would turn out to be as good as he is.”

The 2011 Champion Hurdle has been the plan since this time last year. It makes sense. The 2010 class of novice hurdlers looks very good now. Subsequent events have proven that last year’s renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was one of the strongest in years. Menorah is now one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle, and Dunguib was beaten just two lengths by Philip Hobbs’s horse at Cheltenham last year despite not getting the run of the race. Any thoughts of going chasing have been put on hold for this season at least.

“At the start of the season, we were convinced that what we had was a Champion Hurdle horse, a Grade 1 hurdler, rather than a novice chaser,” says the trainer thoughtfully. “He has jumped baby fences here all right, but that was simply because he wasn’t respecting his hurdles last season, so we were trying to get him to respect them a little bit more.”

An early run was never on the agenda this season, the plan was always to allow the early part of the season pass by, but bad ground ruled Dunguib out of a return to the racecourse in January at Naas, and a poor blood count ruled him out of the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown later that month. The Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park was the only real prep run option left. The fact that that race was delayed for a week pushed it to within three and a half weeks of the Champion Hurdle, but it was ideal for Dunguib as it gave him another week to get over his setback.

“I was happy with him at Gowran,” says Fenton. “We didn’t really know how well he was before the race, we were more concerned about his health actually than we were about his fitness, but he did it well. The runner-up Luska Lad is a good horse and we beat him nicely. And since that run, he has really thrived, he has really come to himself. I would say that he is at least as good a horse as he was last year, possibly better.”

The forgotten horse of this year’s Cheltenham Festival, under the radar, in nine days’ time we may remember him. Dunguib a champion: same story then.

© The Sunday Times, 6th March 2011