Fenton convinced Paisley Park is better than ever
Popular champion looks primed to retain his crown in Thursday's Stayers’ Hurdle
Aidan Coleman celebrates as he rides Paisley Park to victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenaham last year. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty
Barry Fenton has the rare privilege of riding the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle champion out every morning.
Since his wife happens to be the horse’s trainer, Emma Lavelle, it might be viewed as a perk although Fenton is entitled to respond that he’s more entitled, and qualified, than most for the role.
For one thing, although Lavelle holds the licence, the business of training horses at their Wiltshire base is very much a joint operation. They met when both were starting out in the racing game and working for the Grand National-winning trainer Toby Balding.
The privately educated daughter of an eminent London surgeon and the dairy farmer’s son from Ballyorgan near Kilmallock in Co Limerick have been a team ever since. Fenton initially juggled helping his wife with training while also carving out a fine but injury-plagued career as a jump jockey.
The high points of 373 career winners included the 1998 Welsh National on Kendal Cavalier and Cheltenham’s Coral Cup in the same year on Top Cees. The downside was a horrific series of injuries that included breaking his leg five times.
Also in the mix were a fractured sternum and an ear almost being torn off which required 38 stitches. At lowly Plumpton one day in 2006 a fall resulted in Fenton almost losing an eye.
The final leg break at Towcester in 2007 was also a final straw. By the following year he was a full-time assistant to his wife.
Together they have masterminded one of the sport’s ultimate feel-good stories. The tale of owner Andrew Gemmell, who is blind since birth, and the horse who carries his colours has captured the public imagination.
Gemmell and Lavelle are the public faces. But it’s Fenton who is attuned to the centre of attention’s form every day.
“I still ride out every day. I ride Paisley every day. I get a little bit more aches and pains now but that’s probably because I’m unfit and too fat!” laughs the 43-year-old.
Although the Fenton family had no background in racing, the game has pulled at more than just one of them.
Barry’s older brother, Mickey, carved out a successful riding career on the flat including landing the 1,000 Guineas on Speciosa in 2006. However, he too found out how hard a job it can be with injuries.
“I was a jockey when Emma started training but we worked side by side all her training career. There came a time when I was getting injuries and the business was getting bigger so it slotted in right when I said ‘enough is enough’,” he adds.
The joy of riding out a horse every day is that familiarity makes signals impossible to miss and Paisley Park is giving Fenton all the rights signs.
“I think he’s a better horse this year. He’s way more professional. I thought Newbury was his best performance and then he went to Cheltenham and that was better again because they tried to mess him around a bit. And I think he’ll be better again going to the festival,” he says.
That wellbeing extends to the way the horse travels through his races now. If last year’s results invariably wound up conclusive there was often a flat-spot in his races that mightn’t have concerned his jockey Aidan Coleman but hardly calmed the nerves of his supporters in the stands.
Maturity though seems to have eliminated that habit even if appearances briefly suggested otherwise when he beat Summerville Boy in January’s Cleeve Hurdle.
“I haven’t seen it [flat-spot] this year. It was a bit of an element last year but this season I think he has travelled really well and jumped very well.
“At Cheltenham he didn’t actually hit a flat-spot. Aidan took a pull at the bottom of the hill just as Johnny Burke kicked. I don’t believe he hit a flat-spot.
“The thing is he’s not a slow horse. As Aidan says when Johnny kicked and got those few lengths we closed him down easily and that shows how fast we were travelling at.
“Aidan always says he’d be quick enough for a Champion Hurdle. He’s not a slow horse by any means. He’s not one of those out and out stayers, a one trick pony. He can do it whatever way you want, on whatever ground you want – it doesn’t bother him,” says Fenton.
Since no one knows the horse better that’s a pretty definitive verdict.