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Donagh Meyler

Donagh Meyler kicked Feronily on and got him settled in front.  That was the plan.  Use his horse’s stamina.  In contrast to some of his rivals, there was no question about Feronily’s ability to stay three miles.  A truly-run race would play to his strengths and would ensure that, in order to win the race, you would have to truly stay the trip.

The rider didn’t panic when Journey With Me moved up on his outside as they raced down the side of the track first time, he just kept his horse in his rhythm, measured up his fences.  Then, as they raced up past the stands with a circuit to run, he allowed Feronily move up level with his opponent and into the lead again.  After that, he never saw another rival.

The Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase is the championship staying novices’ chase at the Punchestown Festival, a Grade 1 race.  Donagh Meyler had never ridden a Grade 1 winner before Tuesday.  Feronily’s trainer Emmet Mullins had never trained a Grade 1 winner, Feronily’s owner Paul Byrne had never owned a Grade 1 winner.  And you could have argued before Tuesday’s race that Feronily had no business competing in a Grade 1 chase.  

The Getaway gelding had run in a bumper only two months earlier, he had only won his maiden hurdle a month earlier and he had run in his first chase just over two weeks earlier.  He went into Tuesday’s race with only one run over fences on his CV and no wins.  As preparations for Grade 1 chases go, it lacked convention.  But then, Emmet Mullins has never had much regard for convention.

“I had a conversation with Emmet about it in the morning,” says Donagh Meyler.  “He’s fantastic to go through a race, talk through different tactics.  We didn’t want it to turn into a sprint, we knew that our fellow would stay all right.  The plan was to just keep it simple, get Feronily into a rhythm, let him enjoy himself, get him jumping.”

He got him jumping all right, and that was key.  The least experienced horse in the race, Feronily jumped with the greatest fluency.  Journey With Me fell at the 12th fence, Sir Gerhard made mistakes and was eventually pulled up.  Going to the third last fence, the one before the turn for home, Appreciate It moved up on the outside to challenge, but Feronily jumped the obstacle quickly and accurately, while Appreciate It got in tight and went a little to his left.  As they wheeled around the home turn, Feronily was two lengths clear and building momentum, as Appreciate It played catch-up.

“We got rolling from the third last,” says Meyler, “and we kept rolling away.  I was just hoping for two good jumps at the last two fences.  He was long at the second last, but he was good over it, and he was good again at the last.”

When Feronily hit the winning line, he was almost two lengths clear of Appreciate It, with the pair of them clear of their rivals.  A first Grade 1 win for the rider, the jewel in the crown of the best season of his career.

“It was an unbelievable feeling.  It had been a goal of mine for a while, to ride a Grade 1 winner.  I have been lucky enough to have had a few good days in racing so far, but that topped the lot.” 

There have been many good days.  The Galway Plate in 2016 and Lord Scoundrel, the 2018 Munster National on Tiger Roll, the Martin Pipe Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival on Blow By Blow, all for trainer Gordon Elliott for owners Gigginstown House Stud.  And Donagh Meyler won the Paddy Power Chase in 2017 for Tony Martin and JP McManus on Anibale Fly, the horse on whom he won the first race of his riding career, a bumper at Navan in March 2015.

“I have been very lucky to have been helped by lots of good people throughout my career so far,” says the rider.  “The Dollard family lived just down the road from me at home in Kilkenny, they owned The Bunny Boiler who won the Irish Grand National in 2002.  They had horses and ponies, and they got me going.”

Trainer Eoin Doyle was just down the road, so he started going in there.  He spent a summer with Jim Bolger after doing his Junior Cert, but he always wanted to go jumping.  A talented hurler who represented his county at under-age level, his pursuit of his career as a jockey probably cost him an All-Ireland minor medal, but his riding career quickly gathered momentum.  He continued his education with Noel Meade and Tony Martin and Gordon Elliott.  He rode good winners for other good trainers too, Karl Thornton and Arthur Moore and Liz Doyle and John Ryan.

Last season, he had a couple of rides for Emmet Mullins.  He didn’t ride a winner for the trainer last season, but they got on well and, pursuant to advice received from Emmet Mullins’ cousin David, he gave Emmet a call and started going in to ride out.

It grew from there.  This season, Donagh Meyler has had more rides and more winners for Emmet Mullins than he has had for any other trainer.

“It’s brilliant riding for Emmet.  He’s a very clever man.  He looks at things his own way, and you just try to grasp all he says.  I’m really grateful to him and to Paul Byrne and the owners.  They’ve been very loyal to me.  A lot of it is down to Emmet, the season that I have had.”

The best yet.

© The Sunday Times, 30th April 2023