Donn's Articles » Liz Doyle

Liz Doyle

Liz Doyle didn’t go to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival. She was busy at home being pregnant. She did watch intently on the opening day, however, as Al Ferof came clear of Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. And she looked in with more than a modicum of interest the following day as Cheltenian bounded clear in the bumper.

She tried to reconcile her emotions. Delight, regret, she concluded, and every single sentiment in between.

It didn’t seem like more than a year had passed under the bridge since she had brought her promising young horse Al Ferof to Fairyhouse, had seen him win the bumper by 10 lengths and had thought, the sky is the limit with this fellow.

The problem with Martin Murphy’s Dom Alco gelding was that his potential was boundless, and there is nothing like boundless potential to attract the suitors. Small owner, small trainer, it is difficult to resist when Paul Nicholls and John Hales come calling, brandishing cheques replete with zeros, and Al Ferof left Liz Doyle’s yard within a matter of weeks of his Fairyhouse bumper win.

Even then, mixed emotions. Doyle was happy that she had sold a good horse to a good trainer, a good yard, she knew that the horse would have every chance of fulfilling his potential and that the people who needed to know about these things would know that she had produced him, that she had trained him as a young horse to win his point-to-point and his bumper.

Fundamentally, however, she is a racehorse trainer. She probably didn’t know it, but all her time spent with Jimmy Fitzgerald and Gordon Richards learning the trade, even her time spent as a successful point-to-point rider (“I was much more about determination than I was about style!”) has been leading to this: Liz Doyle, racehorse trainer.

Her goal is to train good horses to win good races and, in order to do that, first you need to find the good horses, then you need to keep the good horses. As a youngster, Al Ferof was a good horse at least, potentially a top class horse, a Cheltenham horse, and you don’t come across those easily. Maybe just once in a lifetime.

It is ironic then that, although nobody knew it at the time, as Al Ferof was being sold, there was an unraced Astarabad gelding in the box next door to him named Cheltenian. This game is stranger than fiction sometimes. Ten months after Al Ferof left Crossabeg for Ditcheat, Doyle took Cheltenian to Punchestown for his first run in a bumper.

Cheltenian finished second. He should have won. He ducked to his left when it looked like he was coming to win his race. It was one that got away. That’s racing.

Even so, the sales beckoned. Cheltenian was owned by another small owner, Julie Morgan, and a sale was inevitable. Doyle tried hard to keep the horse in the yard. She made innumerable phone calls and tried to put syndicates together, but all to no avail. If Cheltenian had won his bumper, perhaps it would have been easier, but it isn’t easy to sell a horse who finished second in a bumper into a recession.

The next time Doyle saw Cheltenian, he was winning a bumper at Kempton for Philip Hobbs. The time after that? Cheltenham.

“Watching the Cheltenham Bumper on television, of course I was hoping that he would win,” recalls Liz. “Of course you want to see the horses who have been with you doing well, vindicating your judgement. And it was great for Philip Hobbs and his owner Roger Brookhouse. But after he won, as with Al Ferof, you can’t help but think that it could have been you. The difficulty is not in training them, the difficulty is in finding them.”

It is fairly remarkable, then, that Liz Doyle has found another. Le Vent D’Antan stands proudly in the yard before you, his head resting easily on his neck, his neck flowing into his body, all his parts in proportion, a leg in each corner, ears pricked. Owns the place.

“He’s a real gentleman,” says his trainer. “He is a real pleasure to have anything to do with. And he loves himself, which is no harm.”

Liz and her partner Barry Murphy spotted the Martaline gelding in a catalogue at the Osarus sale in France when he was a yearling, and got their bloodstock agent in France, Guy Petit, Barry’s brother-in-law, who had been instrumental in the purchase of both Al Ferof and Cheltenian as a foal and a yearling respectively, to bid on him when he came up for sale.

“We loved him from the moment that he walked into the yard,” says Barry. “From the moment that he stepped off the horse box just there, we couldn’t believe how easily he did everything.”

Liz’s sister Christina, an oil trader in London, had been asking Liz for a while to look out for a Cheltenham horse for her and some of her workmates. Liz wasn’t sure. Everybody wants a Cheltenham horse. She endeavoured to manage the expectations of D’Antan’s new owners. It wasn’t until he won his schooling bumper and was a couple of weeks off a run that she allowed herself tell her sister how good she really thought this horse could be.

“We were a little nervous before he made his debut at Leopardstown in January,” says Liz. “We knew he was good, but you don’t know what else is going to be in the race. He did it nicely though. Mikey (Fogarty, his rider) said he did it easily.”

The conjecture immediately after the Leopardstown race was that Le Vent D’Antan might go the way of Al Ferof and Cheltenian and leave Crossabeg for pastures new before this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Liz thought that this one might stay.

“The people who own him,” she says. “They are not in it for the money. They wanted a horse who could go to Cheltenham, now they have a horse who can go to Cheltenham, so it doesn’t make sense that they should sell him now.”

And Le Vent D’Antan is a Cheltenham horse, make no mistake. The Cheltenham Bumper is shaping up to be a really hot heat this year, but Le Vent D’Antan deserves his place towards the top of the market.

This time, it will be different for Liz Doyle. No mixed emotions. She will be in the thick of it. This time, Liz Doyle will be there.

© The Sunday Times, 24th February 2013