Donn's Articles » Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle

When Oliver McKiernan gave Tom Doyle the leg up on Follow The Plan before the Betfred Bowl at Aintree last week and led him out onto the racecourse, the rider didn’t really expect that he would be led back into the winner’s enclosure when he returned.

That’s the thing about riding a 50/1 shot: you don’t really expect to win. That said, Doyle knew that his horse was well, he knew that he had come to himself in the spring with the better weather and the sun on his back, he knew that he would bounce off the good ground and he was certain that he would run much better than your typical 50/1 shot. He also knew that his horse was coming into the race a fresh horse, whereas his main rivals, Riverside Theatre, Burton Port, Medermit, even Hunt Ball, had all had hard races at Cheltenham. If one or two of them under-performed, well, you just never know.

Going to the second last fence, he knew all right.

“I actually went to the second last not wanting to jump it well,” recalls the rider. “I thought, if I jump it well, I’m going to land in front, and it was just too early to be going for home. But he actually jumped out of my hands and into the lead, which was a great sign in one sense, it meant that he had plenty of energy left. I just kicked on from there. They were coming back at me a little at the line, but he probably won with lots in hand.”

It was a similar scenario at the Punchestown Festival last year. Follow The Plan was sent off a 20/1 shot for the Punchestown Gold Cup. Kauto Star was favourite, and only one horse in the race was a bigger price than Doyle’s. Yet, just like at Aintree, with the sun on his back and a bounce in the ground, he thrived. He travelled well, jumped well, moved into second place around the home turn, and was there to capitalise when his only remaining rival Roberto Goldback unseated his rider at the last.

Similar, yet different.

“All the big meetings are great, Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown,” says Doyle. “To ride a winner at any of them is brilliant, but they are all unique in their own right. Punchestown is the Irish festival, it’s your home festival, to win the Gold Cup there on Follow The Plan last year was magic. Especially for someone like me, I don’t get to ride that many Grade 1 winners.”

On Wednesday, Doyle and Follow The Plan go back to Punchestown, the defending champions. No Kauto Star this year but, in terms of quality and depth, the Gold Cup is shaping up to be just about the hottest contest of the week. Nevertheless, Doyle is hopeful.

“There are only two weeks between Aintree and Punchestown this year,” he says thoughtfully, “but Follow The Plan seems to be in good form. He loves Punchestown, he loves the big tracks, he is such a good jumper that the big jumps bring out the best in him, and this is his time of year. We have a big chance.”

It hasn’t always been big tracks and big meetings for Doyle. He was 13 years old when he started riding out at Aidan O’Brien’s in Piltown, just at weekends and school holidays initially.

“It was an amazing place,” recalls Tom. “Aidan only had about 20 horses when I went down there first. Then he started training all those winners, and the horses kept coming. The box would go to the races with two horses on it, and it would come back with five. Aidan couldn’t build stables quickly enough.”

When Tom finished school, he went to ride with Dusty Sheehy as an amateur. After he had ridden a couple of winners, he decided that his best chance of making it as a rider was on the other side of the Irish Sea. More racing in Britain, more opportunities. He joined Roger Curtis in Lambourn initially as an amateur, and started to build his contacts. His first ride for Noel Chance was a winner, and it was through Noel that he was introduced to Dave Roberts, the original National Hunt jockeys’ agent. Once in Dave Roberts’s stable, the opportunities became more bountiful, and Doyle turned professional.

Just before Doyle had ridden out his claim, Paul Webber came calling. Jimmy McCarthy and Dean Gallagher were riding most of the trainer’s horses at the time, but the trainer needed a conditional, and he was impressed with Doyle. Shortly afterwards, Dean Gallagher was banned for failing a drugs test, and suddenly Doyle was riding all the Webber horses.

“They were good times with Paul,” says Doyle. “We had some good horses, like Patricksnineteenth and De Soto, but we never got the really good horse. I always felt it was just a matter of time before one came along, because Paul always bought a really nice horse. It just never happened while I was there.”

It was actually one of those good horses that precipitated the end of the relationship. Doyle rode De Soto to go down by just a neck to Missed That in the 2005 Cheltenham Bumper. In his second hurdle race the following season at Wincanton, however, the horse was never travelling, so Doyle wasn’t hard on him, save him for another day. The owners were disappointed, and thought that a change of jockey might bring about some improvement in the horse. Sam Thomas was on board when De Soto won at Taunton six weeks later, and Tom had left Paul Webber.

“I was obviously disappointed,” says the rider now, “but I should have handled it differently. If the same thing happened now, I would handle it differently. But at the time, the only really exciting horse that I could see in the yard was De Soto, and I didn’t see much point in hanging around if I wasn’t going to be riding him. There was no falling out with Paul though. Paul was always a good man to work for and a good man to deal with.”

Shortly afterwards, Tom decided that he would move back to Ireland. It just wasn’t happening for him in England. If he’s honest with himself, he probably didn’t work hard enough at it after leaving Paul Webber, and suddenly you’re out of the limelight, out of favour, out of fashion. It was always his intention to move back to Ireland at some stage anyway, so in 2007, sooner than he thought he would, he returned.

Doyle worked hard. He rode out for every trainer who would have him, he set about re-establishing his contacts, and gradually things began to click. He rode out for Michael Bowe, and he got to ride Sweet Kiln.

“She was the top class horse that I needed,” says Doyle. “She was brilliant. I won the Lismullen Hurdle and the Christmas Hurdle on her, and suddenly people knew who I was again. I am indebted to Sweet Kiln and to Michael Bowe for getting me going in Ireland again.”

Lots of different trainers employ Doyle’s services these days. Jim Culloty, Terence O’Brien, Oliver McKiernan, Kieran Purcell, TJ Nagle, relatively small trainers mainly, but good trainers with decent horses. And with their backing, Doyle is looking forward with justifiable optimism to Punchestown week.

“Paddy Pub could go in the three-and-a-half-mile chase on Friday,” he says. “He ran a cracker for me to finish fourth in the Irish National, he has re-found his form, he just probably wouldn’t want the ground to be too quick.”

Burrenbridge Lodge could go in the two-mile handicap hurdle on Tuesday, Spring Heeled could run in the Grade 1 three-mile novices’ hurdle on Wednesday, Barel O Laughs in the novices’ handicap chase on Friday, The Sneezer in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase on Thursday. And others.

“That would be the nucleus of it,” says Doyle slowly. “But Follow The Plan in the Gold Cup is the big one. It would be fantastic to win it again.”

© The Sunday Times, 22nd April 2012