Donn's Articles » Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle had a fair idea that he would be riding Follow The Plan in the Punchestown Guinness Gold Cup on Wednesday, but he wasn’t sure. When you are just below the top tier in the weigh room in Ireland, when you are grafting, plying your trade without the safety net of one of the big yards or big owners behind you, you can never be sure.

Doyle rode Follow The Plan in the Totesport Bowl at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last month, and he finished third behind Nacarat. He was delighted with the run, but as he dismounted in the place reserved for the horse that finishes third in Aintree’s expansive unsaddling enclosure, he wondered what might have been. He had travelled well into the home straight, but he got in tight to the third last and lost momentum. Then he got in tight to the second last and, in a heartbeat, Nacarat had flown.

Follow The Plan’s trainer Oliver McKiernan is a man of few words, but he seemed happy with the run, he seemed happy with the ride, and he mentioned the Punchestown Gold Cup. McKiernan was right to be happy. It was the best run of Follow The Plan’s life by some way, he had Denman behind him, he had Punchestowns behind him, but he still finished nine lengths behind Nacarat. Doyle wondered how he would make up those nine lengths on Nacarat, second favourite for Wednesday’s race. And how the hell was he going to beat the monster that is Kauto Star?

“Going out, I probably thought we were playing for place money,” recalls Doyle now. “But my horse is a lovely big scopey horse, he is a gorgeous chasing type, and he had given me such a good spin at Aintree, I was sure he would run well.”

The rider re-lives the race. Dropped in out the back, travelling well, jumping lovely. They hadn’t gone very far when he thought that Kauto Star wasn’t travelling very well for Ruby Walsh. Ruby seemed to be giving the dual Gold Cup winner a squeeze. Little response.

Half way down the back straight, and Doyle is still sitting still on Follow The Plan’s back. Kauto Star is gone, Nacarat isn’t travelling, Tranquil Sea isn’t travelling, Kempes is stopping and starting, and all of a sudden, this looks on. Robert Power on Roberto Goldback is really the only other one who is still travelling as they jump the fourth last, jump the third last. Then Power kicks off the home turn, and Doyle asks his horse to pick up.

“I was trying to delay his effort as long as possible,” says Doyle. “But when Puppy kicked, I had to go after him. He had me on the stretch over the second last, and on the run to the last I wasn’t making any impression on him, but just in the last 10 strides before the last fence, I was making ground.”

Follow The Plan was meeting the last fence on a perfect stride, Doyle asked him, one-two-up, and Follow The Plan responded. As he did, out of the corner of his eye he saw Power ask Roberto Goldback to go long. Too long. The horse just about cleared the top of the fence, searched for the ground, sprawled on the landing side and shot Power out of the saddle. Game over. Doyle had a long look around to make sure that he was clear, and allowed his horse coast to Grade 1 victory.

Ask Doyle if he would have won anyway, and he thinks for a moment.

“After the second last, I didn’t think that I was going to get him,” he says. “But just in those last 10 strides before the last, I thought we had him. For sure, he would have had to have jumped the last well to maintain his advantage over us.”

Afterwards, he sought out Robert Power and said sorry. Power’s mis-hap was not Doyle’s fault, but he still felt the strange need to apologise. In the heat of battle, of course you are relieved when your only rival falters, but once you are back with your feet on the ground, you feel the need to put your arm around his shoulders. It’s a strange existence, your fiercest competitors on the racetrack are your colleagues in the weigh room, your best friends in real life. Power just nodded.

Tom Doyle is doing all right now, thanks very much. Wednesday’s win was the fourth Grade 1 win of his career. He has learned his trade with some of the best tutors in the business. School holidays spent riding up the hill at Piltown for Joe Crowley and Aidan O’Brien laid the foundation, and he honed his talents during seven years in spent riding in the UK, for Paul Webber and Noel Chance and Roger Curtis and others, when his big wins included a Scilly Isles Chase on the Paul Webber-trained Patricksnineteenth and a Pertemps Final at the 2007 Cheltenham Festival on Oscar Park for David Arbuthnot.

Horses like Trafford Lad and Sweet Kiln kept him in the shop window since his return to Ireland in 2007. Follow The Plan now is another. You need these horses. No matter how good a rider you are, you need the horses to take you there. You can’t go without the horse.

A total of 31 winners in Ireland this season, the vast majority for small trainers like McKiernan, and 10th position in the jockeys’ championship tells you that Doyle can ride all right. The horses should follow. That’s the plan anyway.

© The Sunday Times, 8th May 2011