Donn's Articles » Philip Fenton

Philip Fenton

It was Davy Russell who first brought The Tullow Tank to Philip Fenton’s attention. It was on the champion jockey’s recommendation that Fenton got himself along to Lemonfield on 4th March 2012 to see Sam Curling’s horse, sent off the even money favourite, finish second, 12 lengths behind Up And Go.

“It was a little disappointing that he didn’t win,” says Fenton now, “but the winner was always going to make big money, and I did like The Tullow Tank. Davy loved him, and Gerry Hogan liked him a lot, so I was able to get him for Barry Connell. I thought that he would progress to be a nice horse but, honestly, I didn’t expect him to be as good as he has turned out to be.”

The Oscar gelding was a little highly-strung when he first arrived at Fenton’s yard in Carrick-on-Suir. He was light-framed, weak-framed, a bit of a worrier. If there was a quarter-sheet flapping in the wind on his back, it could set him off. So Fenton took his time with him, allowed him develop and mature.

Unusually, he started off over hurdles, not in bumpers. He finished a good fourth in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown, then moved straight up to Grade 2 company. As it turned out, that Grade 2 race at Naas last February was one of the hottest novice hurdles run in Ireland last season, with Annie Power, Defy Logic and Don Cossack filling the first three places. Even so, The Tullow Tank, sent off the 50/1 outsider of the field, ran well for a long way before ultimately fading to finish fifth.

After that, Fenton found a bumper at Fairyhouse for him at the end of last March.

“We wanted to run him in a bumper then,” says Fenton. “He was progressing nicely, and it made sense to not try to win a hurdle race, so that we could preserve his novice status for this year.”

He won that bumper, beating his stable companion Real Steel into second place, and Fenton thought, this fellow could be good.

Turns out, the decision to preserve The Tullow Tank’s novice status for this season was inspired. Barry Connell’s horse has turned inside out this term. He won his maiden at Naas in November, won the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, then won the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.

“We had to supplement him for the Royal Bond,” says Fenton. “He hadn’t won his maiden before the entries for that race had closed, and I thought that you might look a bit foolish, entering him in a Grade 1 race when he hadn’t even won his maiden. But Barry was happy to supplement him and he won well.”

Even after Fairyhouse, a right-handed track, there was still a worry about going left-handed. However, that worry eased when he won at Leopardstown in December. Danny Mullins had to get after his horse at the second last flight, earlier than most, but he found plenty for pressure, as is his wont, and he finished strongly, pulling eight lengths clear of his closest pursuer by the time he reached the winning line.

Today, he is probably going to have to step forward again if he is to win the Deloitte Hurdle back at Leopardstown. But the step up to two and a quarter miles should suit, and he has a favourite’s chance. After today, Cheltenham looms.

“On easy ground, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle will probably be the race for him at Cheltenham,” says Fenton. “But on fast ground, he could step up to two and a half miles for the Neptune. We’ll see how Sunday goes first anyway before deciding. We have to make the right decision for the horse.”

These decisions are the nice decisions. Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or Neptune. Dzeko or Negredo. O’Driscoll or Davies. They are difficult decisions, but they are the good ones to have to make. They are the decisions that tell you that you are eating at the top table.

Fenton’s decision to trade his riding boots for a trainer’s licence was an easy one. Four-time champion amateur, Cheltenham Festival-winning rider (Loving Around, 1996), long before he went out to ride L’Antartique in the bumper on the fourth day of the 2004 Listowel Festival, he had decided that that was going to be it. He had already started to train, he had sent out his first winner as a trainer, Slipeneer four days earlier, and he was ready. L’Antartique duly won, and sent him out on a high.

“It was the right time for me,” he says thoughtfully. “I was all set. And to be honest, I have never missed riding. I am very happy doing what I am doing now. I’m very happy that I am able to make a living training racehorses.”

Today is a big day for Fenton. Not only is he responsible for the Deloitte Hurdle favourite, but he will also bring Hennessy Gold Cup contender Last Instalment to the racecourse for just the second time since this day two years ago. A high-class novice chaser, and winner of the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase on this day in 2012, a series of injuries kept him off the racetrack until he returned to finish third in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles three and a half weeks ago.

“We were delighted with his run at Thurles,” says the trainer. “More importantly, though, he was brilliant the following day. It’s always a worry when they have been off for a long time, how they will be the day after they race. But he was great, his legs were perfect.

“I haven’t done much with him since Thurles. He had an easy time for a few days afterwards, and we’ve just been bringing him back gradually. I’d say he will have improved since his Thurles run, but he should also improve for Sunday’s run.”

Last Instalment is not the only returning hero in Philip Fenton’s yard. Dunguib, winner of the Cheltenham Bumper in 2009 and third in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle the following year, ran a nice race to finish third at Naas last month on his first run for almost three years.

“We were delighted with him, and it was great to have him back. He is 11 now, but he has only had 14 races, and he appears to be in the form of his life. He will probably go to Gowran next week for the Red Mills Hurdle. We might have a look at the Coral Cup for him at Cheltenham, but we’ll wait to see how we get on at Gowran first.”

Whatever the decision is, you know that it will be the right one for the horse.

© The Sunday Times, 9th February 2014