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Noel Fehily

Rewind 24 months, Cheltenham Festival 2010, Noel Fehily is on the sidelines. Rewind 12 months, Cheltenham Festival 2011, Noel Fehily is on the sidelines. Not only is he on the sidelines, but he wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t ruing what might have been.

When Ruby Walsh broke his leg in a horrible fall at Down Royal in November 2010, Fehily was the man to whom Paul Nicholls turned. It was a vote of confidence in the rider, recognition from the champion trainer, the recognition and the opportunity that the rider’s talent deserved. Fehily would ride for Nicholls while Walsh was busy recovering: Kauto Star in the King George, Master Minded in the Tingle Creek, the spotlight horses in the spotlight races, a chance to shine.

Fehily rode the Nicholls horses at Cheltenham’s November meeting that year, and he rode Master Minded to win the Amlin Chase and the Tingle Creek Chase. Master Minded is the type of horse and the Tingle Creek is the type of race that provides the oxygen of exposure that a talented rider’s career needs, and momentum was building behind Fehily when, suddenly and frustratingly, he hit a brick wall. A dislocated left wrist, that initially popped back in nicely and didn’t need surgery, stubbornly popped back out again, taking ligaments and tendons with it, and suddenly it was six months.

The King George came and went, Kauto Star came and went, the Cheltenham Festival came and went as Fehily sat and watched. By the time he returned, it was Daryl Jacob who was riding as second jockey to Ruby Walsh. That’s racing. You’re on the sidelines, you lose your contacts, other people ride your horses. The horses don’t stop running just because one rider isn’t there to ride them, and Fehily had to search for the spotlight again.

Fast-forward to now, Cheltenham Festival 2012, Noel Fehily wins the Champion Hurdle on Rock On Ruby. Centre stage.

“Paul asked me if I would ride him about three weeks ago,” says Fehily now from the sanctity of Cheltenham’s weigh room. “I was delighted when he did, I knew he was a decent ride in the race. He had gone very close to beating Binocular at Kempton on his previous run. Realistically, I didn’t really think we would beat Hurricane Fly, but I thought we had a big chance of being placed.”

Fehily had ridden Rock On Ruby to win a bumper at the 2010 Cheltenham November meeting, but he hadn’t sat on him again until he schooled him over a few flights on the Tuesday before the Champion Hurdle.

“He was in flying form,” says the rider. “He absolutely winged down over a few hurdles, so I was looking forward to him lots after that. He was one of my best rides of the week, no question.”

Fehily concocted a game plan. He knew that Overturn and Celestial Halo were going to be handy, probably setting a strong pace, and he knew that his horse – second in last year’s Neptune Hurdle over two and a half miles – would stay the two-mile trip well, so his plan was to ride him handily, close enough to the pace, see how he travelled. He wanted to wind it up early enough, but he didn’t want to be in front too soon, be a sitting duck for the chasers. He just hoped that Overturn would lead him to the final flight, or the home turn at least.

The race panned out as fore-thought. Jason Maguire gave Overturn a breather at the top of the hill, so Fehily was able to get some air into Rock On Ruby’s belly, fill him up for the lung-bursting climb that lay ahead.

“We winged the third last,” recalls Fehily, “winged the second last, and suddenly I was in front going around the home turn. That was probably a bit too early, but I didn’t want to take a pull either, I knew that he would stay, so I just sent him on.

“He picked up really well around the bend, and then he just started to pull up a little on the run to the last when he heard the crowd. I thought, oh my God they’ll be queuing up behind me now, Ruby is bound to be coming at me on Hurricane Fly. I didn’t have time to have a look around, I just wanted to keep my horse balanced, keep his momentum up. In fairness to him, once I landed at the back of the last and got stuck into him, he picked up really well. Once I got four strides away from the last, I thought, it will take a good one to get by me now.”

None did. There wasn’t one good enough. Dreamland.

Fehily had ridden just one Cheltenham Festival winner before last Tuesday, Silver Jaro in the 2008 County Hurdle. But Silver Jaro was a 50/1 shot, the only people cheering him home were connections and bookmakers. As well as that, Silver Jaro was in the days when the County Hurdle was the last race on the last day of the Festival. When Fehily got back into the winner’s enclosure, just a smattering of people were left to assemble and clap politely. This one was different.

“I grew up watching Richard Dunwoody and Norman Williamson winning the Champion Hurdle,” says the Corkman. “You never think it will happen to you. Crossing the line, I was wondering had I taken the wrong course or was there some other reason why I was in front. It was unbelievable. Coming back in, down the chute, all the people cheering, into the winner’s enclosure. Magic.”

Champion Hurdle-winning rider and a new job as first rider to Emma Lavelle, who has a team of exciting young horses, Noel Fehily is gradually gaining the recognition that his talent deserves. He touches wood, you can never take anything for granted in this game, but fast-forward 12 months, Cheltenham Festival 2013: who knows?

© The Sunday Times, 18th March 2012