Trainer Paul Nolan sees out the storm on the long walk back

The Co Wexford trainer brings four horses to Cheltenham next week after a fallow few years

Trainer Paul Nolan at the Dublin Racing Festival at the start of February. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Trainer Paul Nolan at the Dublin Racing Festival at the start of February. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

A couple of weeks back, in among the pile of post that arrived at Paul Nolan’s Toberona Stables near Enniscorthy, was an envelope with a cheque in it. It was a ghost of a thing, this cheque, carrying with it all the good and all the bad of trying to make a living out of training horses. If you wanted to use it for storytelling, you’d frame it and hang it on the wall. Nolan has more sense than that and put it to its intended purpose.

It came from a chap who used to have horses with Nolan, back when there was money and there were horses to be having. But just like a whole swathe of owners around that time, when the recession came to smother him, his racing hobby was the first thing to lose oxygen. Nolan was left with his hand out, deserted out of necessity. The owner of the horse was sorry but then a lot of people were sorry.

“He was a lad who went wallop in the crash,” says Nolan now. “But this cheque that he sent me, it was to pay off the last bit of a bill he owed me from a good 10 years ago. In fairness to him, all the way along he said, ‘When I get going again, I’ll pay you what I owe you’.

“And it took him all that time. But a fortnight ago, he sent his last cheque to clear the debt. And I said to Imelda, my sister in the office, ‘We’ll make sure and send that man a card and thank him very much’. Because there wasn’t too many like him that stuck at it and made sure to make it right. Plenty of others, you never heard from again.”

This is the real life. This is not fantasy. Nolan makes an appealing poster-boy for racing’s lower middle class, the dozens of trainers grinding away from year to year, just about making the game pay. Always one good horse away from making the leap, always one bad injury away from wondering if the whole thing is worth it.

He brings four to Cheltenham next week, the apple of the yard’s eye being Latest Exhibition, the current third favourite of the Albert Bartlett on Thursday. When he won the Grade One staying novice hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival, it was Nolan’s first Grade One success for seven years.

You want a feel for how tight the margins are on this whole thing? Back before Christmas, Nolan nearly lost the horse out of his yard. His owner Jim Mernagh got a huge offer for it and if the sale had gone through, it would have meant a move to a bigger trainer. While there was too much money on the table for the owner to say no, Nolan managed to get him to settle for long enough to cobble together a counter-offer.

“We were lucky,” he says. “Three guys who were already owners in the yard amalgamated together and bought three-quarters of the horse and left Jim with the last quarter. So we were able to keep him in the yard. That’s why I was so delighted that he won in Leopardstown. He was in the colours of a new partnership and it just made the whole venture worthwhile.

Latest Exhibition (left), ridden by Bryan Cooper, in action at Leopardstown during the Dublin Racing Festival. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Latest Exhibition (left), ridden by Bryan Cooper, in action at Leopardstown during the Dublin Racing Festival. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“It’s a precarious life, there’s no doubt about it. It’s the same really as a soccer club down the divisions who have to sell their best players at the end of the season and they’re back to square one again. You can never really elevate yourself to the next division up if you keep selling the good ones. I’m not saying that I’m elevating myself at all but it’s to be able to make a living and stay going.

“It’s very hard for an owner to decide to come to me. They’re going to go to the yards that win on the big day. And you won’t win on the big day unless you have the ammunition to do so. That’s basically it. You can’t win unless you have the horses and you won’t get the horses unless you win. So if have to you go selling the good ones, you won’t get anywhere.

“That’s the only thing it comes down to. You can be a great fella, you can have great facilities, you can have everything you like. But if you’re not having winners, you won’t get the good horses in.”

When the winners dry up, then what? It’s only four years since Nolan went a whole season with just five winners. And they weren’t big winners either – he had a horse called Solita that was placed in a few graded races and the prizemoney it won for the odd second and third amounted to more than the others picked up for winning. That sort of strike rate isn’t a feasible way of life. He surely gave serious thought to getting shot of it?

“Well, it’s all right to think about packing it in but where do you go then?” he says. “If you had an underlying business to switch to, that would be one thing. But my whole family is involved in this with me. It wouldn’t have been a case of, ‘What am I going to do next?’ It would have been, ‘What are we all going to do?’ Do you sell the whole place and buy a pub? Or buy a shop? Or buy a deli? What do you do? I want to do this.

“People say it must have been terrible when you went down to five winners. But the God’s honest truth of it is that we knew that was coming. We knew the year before that we had nothing for the following year. We knew we had nothing. We wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d only had two winners for the year. We were actually delighted to have five!

“It was the same as if we were told the electricity was going to be turned off at lunchtime on Monday – we knew there was no chance of going out there and flicking a switch and suddenly finding the lights worked. We weren’t going to suddenly wake up one morning and find the stables filled with yokes who were well-handicapped, coming out to win this, that and the other. It just wasn’t happening.”

So they hunkered down and saw it out. Late in the season, they ran a young horse called Discorama to come second in a bumper in Thurles. The following March, it came from the back in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham, passing every horse but one to finish second again. Last year, it ran in the four-miler and looked the winner over the last and a couple of times up the run-in, only to give way at the line.

Paul Nolan celebrates Joncol’s win in the 2010 Hennessey Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Paul Nolan celebrates Joncol’s win in the 2010 Hennessey Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

A few weeks later, Discorama split Delta Work and A Plus Tard at Punchestown. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to be a superstar, unthinkable back in the black days of 2017. For now, Nolan is happy enough to have one that pays his way and promises to have a big day in him if and when everything eventually falls right. It might be in the Ultima on Tuesday, it might be at the Irish Grand National on Easter Monday. Might be never.

The thing is, you keep going. When Latest Exhibition won at the Dublin Racing Festival, the rolling boil of goodwill for Nolan was obvious to everyone watching, whether you were at Leopardstown or watching on TV. There was a time when he was a rising star in the training ranks and maybe if the crash hadn’t happened, he could have kept growing. But it did and he survived it and here he was, standing in for the photo on the big day again. Thoughts of how far he’d come must have accompanied him down the road that night?

“No. Not really. That’s not how you think. You’re just waiting for the next one to run bad. It goes very quick. The very next day you could have something that runs shite and you’re thinking, ‘Ah Jaysus Christ, how am I going to face into this shit again?’ Sport fairly keeps you grounded. It’s like if you’re over a hurling team and they go out one day and have a big win. If you get the shit hurled out of you the next day, the last thing you should be is surprised.

“Sport is the most unforgiving thing in life. It’s unbelievable. And at least in other sports, you’re dealing with human beings and you can ask them what went wrong. Try coming down the road with a horse in the lorry who’s after doing the exact opposite of what you thought it would do.

“The analysis that goes into it is incredible. You bring them home, get them scoped, get their blood tested, get a lung wash – you’re basically crawling through them with a fine-tooth comb to find out something. And if you keep looking, you will find something. If you keep doing swabs and keep digging into the animal, you’ll find some class of foreign pollen or something that might be affecting it.

“But even when you do all that, are you sure that’s what caused the problem? Not a hope! Sometimes, sport goes that way. Did they scope the rugby lads after the England game? But people always want answers. It can’t just be, ‘It wasn’t our day’.”

Here he is, all the same. Heading to Cheltenham with a couple of live chances, too long at it to be overly bullish, too happy in himself to write them off. It’s nine years since he had a winner at the festival and the craving is still in him. If he hadn’t seen such riches he could live with being poor.

“There’s some difference in Cheltenham at the end of a race,” he says. “You walk up into the parade ring and there’s a carpet yoke leading to the left into where the winners’ enclosure is and the first four go there. And if you’re not one of those, you turn to the right and it’s a shorter walk and they’re throwing buckets of water on your horse and the rest of them.

“You’re standing in a foot of shit and there’s mucky water flowing over your shoes and your yoke is after running shite as well. And all you can hear is the music and the roaring and shouting for the winners. I call it the long-face parade ring. If you’re in there and you’re after having a runner you fancied and it came nowhere, it’s a long walk. I’ll tell you that, it’s a long walk.”

Not always. And not forever.

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