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Donie McInerney

“Do you prefer Donie or Donal?”

“Donie is fine.  Sure everyone calls me Donie.  I think my mother is the only one who still calls me Donal.”

Once that’s cleared up, we can concentrate on Auvergnat.

Donie McInerney thought that Avergnat had a chance of winning the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown on Thursday.  The Enda Bolger-trained gelding may have been a 28/1 shot, there may only have been six of the 27 runners available at greater odds and he may have been the outsider of owner JP McManus’ eight runners in the race, but his rider had every faith.

“He’s a lovely horse,” he says.  “He’s lazy at home.  I ride him a lot but anyone could ride him.  He keeps a bit for himself.  But he has lots of ability.”

Auvergnat was keen enough in his first-time blinkers through the early stages of Thursday’s race, but McInerney quickly had him settled into a nice racing rhythm, just behind the leaders.

“I was a bit handier than I wanted to be, and he was taking a good grip with me.  But he was doing everything nicely, I didn’t want to break his stride, so I just let him roll along.”

Auvergnat’s rolled along all right.  His jumping was good, and he had manoeuvred himself into third place behind Rogue Angel and Vieux Morvan as they raced across the top of the track towards the second last fence.

“I knew when we jumped the second last that I still had plenty of horse underneath me.  I moved him out around the home turn, and thankfully we got a bit of light.  We jumped the last in front, and I knew that he would keep galloping.  The blinkers helped and I’d say it was no harm that there were loose horses around us.  He galloped all the way to the line.”

McInerney just punched Auvergnat out up the run-in.  Hands and heels, as the pair of them drew clear of their pursuers.  He eased his horse down close home, and he patted him on the neck as they crossed the winning line.

“That was some feeling.  In such a big race, in front of such a big crowd.  To win a race like that at Leopardstown at Christmas, for Enda and JP McManus.  That’s the biggest win of my career so far without questions.  And on Auvergnat.  He’s a legend of a horse.”

Donie McInerney and Auvergnat go way back.  The pair of them teamed up for the first time under Rules for the PP Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase at Punchestown in February 2017, and they propelled each other to victory. 

It was a copybook ride by McInerney that day.  He got his horse nicely settled early on just behind the leaders, into a nice rhythm over the up-banks and drop-banks and drains.  He tracked the two leaders Colour Squadron and Ballyboker Bridge as they broke away from the field across the centre of the track, and he delivered his horse to hit the front on the way to the final obstacle before driving him up the run-in to victory. 

The quality of the ride was picked up in post-race dispatches.  A promising young rider, they said.  A name to note.

It was the beginning of the end of a frustrating time for the young rider.  He had spent the previous five years scratching around as an amateur rider, scavenging for rides in point-to-points.

“It was difficult to get rides in point-to-points,” he says.  “The top five or six lads were dominant.  It was difficult for a young lad to get a bit of a break.  I was lucky if I could get 30 rides a year, and I only rode four or five winners in those five years.” 

Then trainer Enda Bolger suggested that he should turn professional.  That if he could keep his weight at around 10 stone, there would be opportunities for him.  McInerney took the wily trainer’s advice and, in February 2017, took out his professional licence.  

True to his word, two days after McInerney got his licence, Bolger was legging him up on Auvergnat in the parade ring at Punchestown.  And seven minutes after that, the young rider came back into the winner’s enclosure, his first winner as a professional jockey in the bag.

Donie McInerney and Enda Bolger go way back too.  From Herbertstown in County Limerick, McInerney’s home is just 20 minutes from the trainer’s yard, and he started going in to Bolger’s when he was 15.  

“I was thinking that I wouldn’t mind having a go at being a jockey.  I was thinking of applying to the apprentice school in Kildare, and I went to Enda’s initially for experience.  But then I figured, I was learning so much at Enda’s, I was getting such brilliant experience, why would I leave?’

Last season, Bolger provided the rider with the oxygen of opportunity, and McInerney took deep breaths. 

“I can’t thank Enda enough.  And JP McManus and Frank Berry.  The opportunities that they have given me.  They have been brilliant to me.”

McInerney cut loose last season.  He rode Market’s Field to win a beginners’ chase at Wexford and a handicap hurdle at Sligo, and he rode Ballyoisin to win a good handicap chase at Cork.  There were outside rides too.  He won a good handicap chase at Gowran Park in March on Goulane Chosen for Seamus Spillane, and he rode Ministerforsport for Noel O’Neill to win a good handicap hurdle at Cork in April.

He rode 33 winners last season, and was crowned champion conditional rider.

And the Auvergnat thread ran through last season.  Horse and rider teamed up again to win the PP Hogan Chase again at Punchestown last February, and they went back to Punchestown in April for the Festival and landed the La Touche Cup, getting the better of Nina Carberry on stable companion Josies Orders in a thriller.

This season is rolling along too.

© The Sunday Times, 30th December 2018