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'People absolutely loved that horse': How Danoli and Tom Foley captured Irish sporting hearts

The popular trainer passed away recently but the memories of his exploits with Danoli will live on.


IN JANUARY 1994 as he toured the Carlow countryside, Cornelius Lysaght was struggling to find his destination.

He drove past the Lord Bagenal Inn in Leighlinbridge and reached the small town of Bagenalstown shortly after. He knew he was close but finding the end location was problematic.

The day before at Leopardstown, the Irish Champion Hurdle had been won by Fortune And Fame for the combination of Dermot Weld and Adrian Maguire.

Lysaght was a few years into his role as racing correspondent for BBC Five Live. The intrigue for him lay in the runner-up that Sunday. His job description was to find preview stories ahead of big meetings that were different and more accessible to a wider audience that were not all racing diehards.

A couple of months out from Cheltenham, Danoli and his trainer Tom Foley  at the farm in Aughabeg were a perfect fit.

“I remember slightly nervously ringing this number I’d got out of some kind of directory. Tom said, ‘Yeah, yeah, come down tomorrow morning.’

“But God I couldn’t find it. I went to the wrong farmyard and there was an Alsatian barking at my car. I thought I’m not getting out to find out if this is the right place.

“But then when I eventually worked it out where it was, I was very popular later amongst colleagues because I knew the way.

“I’m really proud of the fact, I was the first UK journalist to go see him. This horse emerging from the farmyard to take on the world was really engaging.”

The path to this remote location would become well-trodden. That March, Danoli justified the tag of Irish banker in the Cotswolds. He wouldn’t win at the festival again but captured the imagination during his career until his last run in May 2000.

But what made the story of the horse and the small Carlow trainer so compelling?


Tom Foley passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 74 after a cancer illness.

There was a poignancy to the timing as a week later his partnership was illuminated on screen by TG4 as part of their terrific ‘Laochra Na Rásaíochta’ series.

It was an episode described as focusing on ‘three farmers and four racehorses’, according to Denis Kirwan, a producer for Touchline Media, the makers of the documentary.
Danoli’s rise was given prominence and if there was an emotional twist when it aired at Foley sharing his recollections, Kirwan was simply grateful they got the chance to record it last summer during a lull in the pandemic.

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“Tom was in great form. It was a wonderful time. We spent a couple of hours with him in Gowran Park. He just loved telling the story of Danoli.

“It was very sad to hear of his passing but we were very fortunate to have sat down and had a chat with him.

“He was delighted that people will continually remember Danoli for his feats.

“And he said it’s important that generations to come are reminded of what a remarkable horse he was in terms of the part he played in the national psyche at the time.”

Foley farmed on the land he grew up in, a pocket of Carlow less than a half-hour drive from Kilkenny on one side and Wexford on the other.

He acquired Danoli at Goffs for 7,000 guineas on behalf of owner Dan O’Neill, a native of Myshall in Carlow and a bone-setter who turned 90 last September.. The name Danoli was a blend of Dan’s name and his daughter Olivia.

dan-oneill-leopardstown-26121996 Racing owner Dan O'Neill. Source: © INPHO/James Meehan

The beginnings with Danoli were humble, he first ran on Saturday 31 October 1992 at Naas.

“Atours was favourite for the Philip McCartan Memorial Flat Race and, although he ran a fine race, he had to give best to the newcomer Danoli which was put under strong pressure from his rider Patrick English in the final furlong,” wrote Ray Glennon in The Sunday Independent the following day.

That was the start of it. In total Danoli ran 32 times, winning 17 races and placed on a further nine occasions. There was success at Cheltenham under Charlie Swan in 1994, back-to-back wins at Aintree (‘94 and ‘95), and the Irish Gold Cup win in 1997. Each added another layer of popularity to a horse bestowed with the tag of ‘The People’s Champion’. There was widespread acclaim at racecourses and an appearance on The Late Late Show.

“To me it was the absolute essence of a National Hunt story, the historic grassroots nature of it,” says Lysaght.

“You could say I’m stretching the point a little bit, it’s not massively so. Here was a horse bought relatively cheaply by a man and his daughter to have a horse in training, then trained on a farm in a Carlow and emerging from that farmyard to take on the world on the sport’s biggest stage and carrying it off.

“National Hunt racing’s roots are in the countryside in Ireland and Britain. Danoli was following the true traditions in the way it’s been going for centuries. To add to the whole thing, the person alongside the horse was just a normal guy.

“A guy who came out of the farmyard slightly blinking in the limelight he and the horse found themselves in.”

tom-foley-trainer-with-danoli Source: James MeehanInpho

The character and personality of Foley were central to the story. He marked his first trip on a plane for the 1994 Cheltenham Festival, boarding a flight from Dublin to Bristol for the first runner he had saddled outside of the country. The local parish priest Fr. Dowling would bless the horse before he left the yard for every race.

“He was a man who was very humble in his ways,” says Kirwan. “He wouldn’t wear a tie too often. He said that himself. People were debating whether he would end up wearing the tie when Danoli ran at Cheltenham in case he met the Queen Mother.”

In the end Foley did and Danoli’s win in the Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle gave cause for him to meet royalty.

The opening day had been a whitewash for Irish hopefuls. Danoli was the first Irish success and there were only three over the course of the meeting, a world removed from the modern eye-catching levels of domination. If Foley felt immense pressure, his horse delivered and there was plenty of delight for the trainer.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

“I have a colleague who I went with on one occasion to Tom’s yard and he worked for a newspaper,” recalls Lysaght.

“He didn’t have a photographer so I think he just brought his own camera to get a picture of himself with Danoli. We’re there in the stableyard with Danoli and the phone rang.

“So Tom had to go into the house to answer. He just handed us Danoli to hold while he was on the phone. The colleague and me still laugh about that to this day, the responsibility was in our hands for the few minutes of that telephone call.

“There was nothing fancy about Tom Foley. He was just a hard worker.”

tom-foley Tom Foley pictured in 2005. Source: INPHO

Joint favourite for the 1995 Champion Hurdle, Danoli finished third behind Alderbook in a thrilling finish. Then his career swerved off course the following month after glory on the marquee racing day in Liverpool, fracturing a fetlock in the process of securing victory.

The comeback element added to the appeal with excitement levels ratcheted up for the 1996 Irish Champion Hurdle. There was no fairytale win but there didn’t need to be as a strong run yielded third place.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

“I don’t think there’ll ever be a more memorable day that I’ve attended a race meeting, certainly not with a horse that didn’t win, as when Danoli made his return,” recalls Lysaght.

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“There was just zero interest in the first two. It was like a superstar had turned up. The only thing in recent years I’ve seen that would have any comparison, but it was not on the Danoli scale, was Faugheen making a similar return at Leopardstown a few years ago.”

the-hennessy-cognac-gold-cup-danolijodami221997 Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

Danoli finished third behind Collier Bay that day, and fourth two months later behind the same winner in the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle. Sandwiched in between was the Red Mills Trial Hurdle, Tom Treacy piloting home a winner who ensured the profile of the Gowran Park meeting exploded.

And then a crowning moment on 2 February 1997 when the Irish Gold Cup was landed as Danoli galloped clear for Treacy.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

Foley enjoyed graded race success elsewhere in his career. Moon Man looked promising until suffering a fatal injury in 1995. Rebel Gold provided success at Gowran Park more recently in January.

But that afternoon in Leopardstown 24 years ago was when he was most in the limelight after sparking wild celebrations.

“He came back when everybody thought his career was over,” says Kirwan.

“That was one of the great days ever witnessed in Leopardstown. Tom just had a nice easygoing way that people took a shine to. The horse himself was a great story. It had all the essential elements of what’s great about National Hunt racing and something that people from the country can identify with.”

Danoli’s last win was in March 2000 in Navan. That May was his last run, a faller in the Punchestown Gold Cup, and he was retired in August, spending time at the Irish National Stud in Kildare until he died in April 2006.


The connection between fans and the horse helped fuell the narrative

“If you consider, the Irish folk heroes at the Cheltenham Festival have played a massive part since the Second World War with Arkle obviously, Dawn Run in the ’80s, with Danoli, with Istabraq, and probably not been a folk hero like that since,” says Lysaght.

“Faugheen went some way towards that status. We’re just really due another one and not just for Irish racing but for jumps racing in these islands. It would be lovely to think there is a possibility, we’re on the cusp of another one.

“Were Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore to come to Cheltenham and win the Champion Hurdle, it’d be great for racing on these islands if a new folk hero type horse could emerge. An unbeaten horse with a great name and quite a lot of charisma, a really engaging jockey, a really engaging trainer in Henry De Bromhead — I think Honeysuckle has quite a lot of credentials.”

In April last year before he finished up his time with the BBC, Lysaght was asked for his top 10 racing moments witnessed as a correspondent and then pressed to pick one he could watch on loop in stranded on a desert island type scenario.

“People in the BBC looked at me a bit startled, I think they thought I was going to say Frankel or Desert Orchid or something else. But the fact is the story of Danoli from the end of ’93 onwards, it was just feel-good and a lovely story to tell.

“He was a sensational hurdler and a top-notch steeplechaser. If he hadn’t been injured, he could clearly have gone further than he did and he went a long way.

“But if he hadn’t been owned by and trained by a team of people who were so devoted to him and so devoted to nursing him back to full strength, then he might not have achieved what he did.

“People absolutely loved that horse.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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