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Dublin: 4 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

No flash. No fuss. Noel Fehily rides into the sunset

The Cork jockey speaks to The42 following his retirement earlier this month.

Noel Fehily announced his retirement at this year's Cheltenham Festival.
Noel Fehily announced his retirement at this year's Cheltenham Festival.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

NOT ONCE DID Noel Fehily question his chosen profession.

He didn’t consider calling it quits even when he fell from the Oliver Sherwood-trained Got Away four from home in the two-mile-five mares’ handicap chase at Punchestown last April, a tumble that resulted in a fracture of his C7 vertebrae.

He didn’t think about hanging up his whip even when a dislocated wrist put paid to his chances to partner Kauto Star – only pilotless because regular jockey Ruby Walsh was out with a broken leg – as the Paul Nicholls’ superstar made a bid for an unprecedented fifth success in the King George.

The notion of quitting didn’t once occur throughout a career littered with breaks, dislocations, bumps, and bruises.

But when Fehily knew, he knew. Even if he caught the rest of the racing world unawares.

Noel Fehily onboard Eglantine Du Seuil celebrates winning Noel Fehily onboard Eglantine Du Seuil at Cheltenham this year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 43-year-old had just piloted 50-1 shot Eglantine Du Seuil to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham earlier this month when he announced that the 2019 Festival would be his last.

“I’m not getting any younger and it’s a young man’s game,” the affable Corkman told Racing TV.

As it happens, Fehily is on his way to the Racing TV studios when he takes a call from The42 this week.

“It’s been a bit strange alright,” Fehily says of referring to his career in the past tense.

“But I suppose the strangest part is not planning ahead to what you’re going to ride.

Normally, that’s how you spend most of your week – looking at what you’ll be riding. The Aintree entries are coming out now and normally I’d be making plans for that.

“So from that point of view, it’s been a bit odd, not planning your life six days in advance, but I’ve been so busy with things here and there, I haven’t had time to sit down and dwell on retirement too much.”

He has the air of a man very much at peace with his decision, but part of the reason he finally decided to retire must be incredibly frustrating for someone who overcame all sorts of injuries to stay in the saddle.

Earlier this year, Fehily missed a couple of weeks after having surgery to remove his appendix. In February, complications from that procedure left him in the grandstands, and in chronic pain, once more.

His intestine had become attached to the scar tissue from his appendix removal, so every time Fehily ate it caused pain and nausea. A slight man anyway, he lost a lot of weight.

But Fehily is not the type to dwell and he has bounced back. If Eglantine Du Seuil’s success was the cherry on top, a perfectly timed run on Capone in the handicap hurdle at Huntingdon a week later was the type of spin that encapsulated everything the made him so popular with punters and fellow jockeys alike.

No flash. No fuss. Noel Fehily.

Noel Fehily onboard Summerville Boy comes home to win Noel Fehily onboard Summerville Boy comes home to win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Late bloomer

By his own admission, Fehily came late to racing. He was 22 when he first rode as an amatuer for Charlie Mann. He was champion conditional jockey within three years.

He had to wait 10 years for his first Cheltenham winner, when Silver Jaro took the County Hurdle, with his first Grade One success coming just a few weeks later as Mann’s Air Force One won the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown; the race effectively over when the then-33 year old sent his mount to the front three out before powering away from his rivals.

“I’d like to think I didn’t change that much over the years,” he says.

I suppose when you’re riding the big name horses in Saturday races, people probably pay a bit more attention to you than when you’re riding point-to-point, but I don’t think it ever changed the way I went about my business.

“I always felt like I was tipping away, riding more winners every season, but if you’re not on the headline horses on a Saturday maybe people aren’t paying as much attention. So maybe, even when I was progressing, people were only noticing when I was riding the bigger names.

I do think it helps to serve your time in racing. There’s plenty of pressure when you’re riding big name horses but when you’ve worked your way up to them, you’ve had to deal with every possible scenario in a race so you know what to do on any given occasion.

“When you have so much experience, nothing tends to faze you on the bigger days.”

Experience is something Fehily has in abundance, riding no fewer than 478 winners – not to mention 382 seconds, 323 thirds and 266 fourth places – in 2,476 career races.

His final ride, Get In The Queue, also proved to be his final winner when Harry Fry’s odds-on favourite took the two-mile bumper at Newbury on 23 March.

It was a nice way to go out, but Fehily makes the point it would have been a terrible end to his career to lose his last race on a 1-3 shot.

The Corkman has seen some significant changes in his time racing, most notably a seven day week.

“Sunday racing has definitely been the biggest change. It’s changed a huge amount of things from a jockey’s points of view. When I started racing, Saturday night was a big night out for all the jockeys because you’d have Sunday off and get back into it on the Monday.

Now though, you have racing seven days a week and it’s much more professional. Everyone’s a lot fitter and looking after themselves much more. You have to be a lot fitter because everyone else keeping in shape.

“That’s not to say lads weren’t fit 20 years ago, they were, but it was a different type of fit. They were race fit back then, or at least fit from racing, whereas now you see them in the gym and they have strength and conditioning coaches.

It’s at a completely different level but it is better for everyone. I kept going until I was 43 and I was riding at a good level. 10-15 years ago that was unheard of because once you got past your mid-thirties people were asking you when you were packing up.

“It’s very different now. The young lads in their 20s are being so well looked after from day one I think we’ll see some of them riding into their late 40s. Maybe later.”

There isn’t a jockey alive who hasn’t suffered a losing streak, and when Fehily was struggling during his career he’d often put on tapes of some of his favourite wins to find some spark of inspiration.

Noel D. Fehily celebrates winning Fehily celebrates the Champion Stayers Hurdle in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Watching racing when he’s not involved is a different matter entirely.

While he’s far too new to this retirement business to have decided what’s next, he’s keeping his options open.

He bought a farm a few years ago and has some horses there he’s looking forward to working with and seeing how it goes.

TV is also an option considering his popularity with racegoers. It’s something he says he’d like to explore as it’ll give him a chance to continue to go racing.

But for now, Fehily seems content that the fuss surrounding his retirement is dying down.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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