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Johnny Ward: Latest Exhibition's Cheltenham chance is a story to be savoured

Paul Nolan can strike symbolic victory in game dominated by a few, writes Johnny Ward.

Nolan, right, with Gordon Elliott (file photo).
Nolan, right, with Gordon Elliott (file photo).
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

I WAS CHATTING to Gowran’s Eddie Scally during the week as one of Ireland’s most enthusiastic racing managers continued his plans for the track’s iconic Goffs Thyestes card, taking place on Thursday.

Borrowing from another handicap Down Under, they have styled it The Race That Stops A County, but there is substance to the propaganda. Flat meetings at Gowran, despite the calibre of horse that runs there, find it impossible to attract a decent crowd.

This is National Hunt country. And proud of same.

A scatter of well-known trainers are housed nearby, usually called Mullins. Thyestes Day, taking place midweek, feels like a throwback to days gone by, when crowds throng to a rural venue while normal people are at work.

“I’ve been thinking about what you were saying on Twitter and mentioned before about how the atmosphere is gone from race meetings,” Scally said, in reference to a reply I made to Richard Pugh under a video of Danoli winning the 1997 Hennessy on social media.

“To this day the loudest roar I’ve ever heard on a racecourse and by quite some way,” the commentator tweeted. “When Danoli landed over the last it was deafening and at the line unbelievable.”

Watch it back now and if I defy anyone who says it stirs no emotion. And this is coming from someone who had no interest in racing in 1997 and never saw Danoli race.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

Over two decades on, veteran trainer Tom Foley comes alive when asked anything about the immortal Danoli.

“His determination was unbelievable, though to this day I still can’t quite put my finger on why he was so popular.”

Leopardstown must have been heaving that afternoon as Danoli, whom commentator Tony O’Hehir would hail as “The People’s Champion”, beat Jodami and Imperial Call. Even reading those names now transmits an involuntary tingle.

Danoli’s popularity seems straightforward to explain and may have less than one would think to do with his toughness on the track. It was down to his being trained by a humble gentleman, owned by another and ridden by a journeyman in Tommy Treacy.

“You should see the way Presenting Percy is loved when he comes to Gowran,” Scally went on. “In some ways he is becoming the people’s horse of today.”

Presenting Percy is trained by an enigmatic, tongue-tied Galwegian in Pat Kelly, a small trainer; he represents something different, and his owner Philip Reynolds is the son of a popular statesman, if hardly short of a few bob!

Scally argues that the public finds it hard to get excited about the same millionaire/billionaire owners winning big races. He is right. That is why Danoli was special and why the resurgence of Paul Nolan could be too.

Nolan has had the odd good horse. Think Cloone River, Accordion Etoile, Joncol. For nearly a decade earlier this century, Nolan averaged over 32 winners a season in Ireland alone. In the 2016/2017 campaign, he was down to a dismal five winners, less than one every couple of months.

If you haven’t met Paul Nolan, you’ll be fond of him before he says anything. His character is betrayed within seconds, a fusion of a smile as electrifying as his curly hair, with a handshake that would crush an uprising.

Nolan is Wexford through and through, probably craving an All-Ireland hurling win as much as one at Cheltenham. And the fact he has come upon Latest Exhibition is something to celebrate in a game dominated by a handful.

His owner, Jim Mernagh, has worked hard to develop Coolamurry Stud in the Model County and Latest Exhibition is the apple of his eye. He owned and bred the dam, Aura About You, who won three races for Nolan, flooring The Mick Winters-trained For Bill in a Grade Three Chase at Limerick in 2011. There must have been some craic in the parade ring.

Latest Exhibition won three of his first five starts but, despite a bad mistake, it was the way he took care of Andy Dufresne at Navan on just his third hurdles start that was most striking. Gordon Elliott reckons stamina did not beat Andy Dufresene, even if Latest Exhibition did – pretty easily.

And he could simply be another very good horse for another very good trainer for another mega wealthy owner. Mernagh was offered colossal money to offload the novice after Navan. He should have taken the sensible option. Instead he kept him. So did Nolan.

“Jim sold three-quarters of the horse to a consortium of my loyal owners. You couldn’t wish for a better outcome really,” Nolan said.

“If anything happens one horse, the resurgence will be short-lived: not nearly enough ammunition,” the trainer told The42 this morning without bluster. However, he is partly wrong.

Latest Exhibition appeals as a major Albert Bartlett contender but Nolan also has Discorama, second at the Festival last season.

Discorama is part-owned by Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind from birth. His love of the game has been infectious to the point that footage of him celebrating a winner on TV in Britain is of no small importance to stab at a media narrative beholden to absurd welfare concerns, driven by people who could not tell a horse from an ass.

Discorama was due to run at Gowran in the Thyestes but Nolan will spare him that combat with a view to running him in the Pertemps or over fences at Cheltenham.

And if Latest Exhibition carries the Wexford colours to glory up the Cheltenham hill in March, it will remind us, or certainly this writer, why we fell in love with racing in the first place.

Charlie Stout did us a favour last Saturday after a poor run of form on the tips front. He was a big price and so is Shelter, of major interest tonight at 33/1 in the division two of the Fundraise At Dundalk Stadium Handicap (6.30), now back at a mile with Seamus Heffernan back on board.

Gwencily Berbas is the class act for the likeable father-and-son McNamara pair of Eric and Conor if it all falls into place in the handicap chase (3.50) at Thurles on Sunday, when the home of hurling plays host to the town’s own biggest meeting of the year, with Footpad among the visitors.

Give it a good cheer. Winners, like Paul Nolan, are to be celebrated.

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Johnny Ward

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