Hounds, horses and hurling

He seems fine and I am happy with him... two miles and five furlongs around Cheltenham is right up his street.

It’s like a scene from 101 Dalmatians. Paul Nolan, man of Wexford, hurler, champion talker and successful racehorse trainer, hits the corner with his entourage — a motley collection of hounds that includes a three-legged Jack Russell and a Rottweiler pup, Frankie, who is the size of a small grizzly bear.

Frankie, whose food rations have been halved, is chewing on his bosses’ hand until a nip on the ear by a Jack Russell persuades him to let go. It’s not quite canine bedlam, but it’ll do until canine bedlam gets here.

Nolan’s stable, a couple of miles outside Enniscorthy, is a metaphor for the man. Bustling, energetic and welcoming, it has emerged over the last decade as one of Ireland’s more reliable winner factories, and is a home to strong hopes that the eight-year-old Noble Prince, last year’s Jewson winner, can double up in the Ryanair Chase this afternoon. The hope seems well-grounded, because history has taught us that horses that win at the festival likely do so again.

Noble Prince’s career began in settings more luscious than the rich pastures of mid-Wexford that he now calls home. By the brilliant sire Monjeu out of a top-class mare, he was trained on the flat by Andre Fabre, for Coolmore, and became a handy stayer, rated 105. He was nowhere near good enough to be a commercial stallion, so he was sold on down a road that led to Wexford.

“We got him at the Arc horses in training sale,” says Nolan. “We bought him as a four-year-old, he was very forward, very strong, but he was very ‘stalliony’ as well, so we gelded him. It took him a long time to recover from that and I think that explained his slow start over hurdles.”

Like Noble Prince, Nolan’s training career was also built on a steady start and has only reached its present eminence through hard work and perseverance, coupled with what seems to be unlimited reserves of optimism and self-belief. An All-Ireland winning junior hurler, there was no family heritage to leg up a career in racing. “I never had anything to do with horses as a kid,” he says. “I’d watch Cheltenham alright, if it was on, but, to be honest, I never went near the place until I had a runner.”

The long route to that first runner included an educational stop-off at Jim Bolger’s equine ‘university’ in Carlow, before a return to his neighbourhood in the shadow of Vinegar Hill in the mid-1990s, and within a few years he was collecting high-class races with the speed at which he now collects odd-shaped dogs.

His breakthrough year was 2002, when Say Again won the Galway Hurdle, a race that was to prove pivotal to his embryonic career, as he won twice again soon after, including a famous gamble with Cloone River, in 2004, and again with Cuan Na Grai a couple of years later. Predictably, better horses soon followed and he’s been to the bank more recently with horses of the calibre of Accordian Etoile, High Prospect, Kill Devil Hill, French Accordian, Shinrock Paddy, Alpha Ridge, Joncol and, of course, Noble Prince himself. He landed his first, and until last year his only, festival winner when Doubrian and Nina Carberry won the Fred Winter Hurdle in 2005.

Does Nolan thrive on the full-on Cheltenham experience? “I suppose I do enjoy it,” he says. “There is pressure, of course, but compared to the likes of Willie (Mullins) or Paul Nicholls, who’d have runners in almost every race, I suppose it’s not too bad for the likes of me. I enjoy all the buzz, meeting good people after the racing, and all that, but I would still more than likely be the first to get to bed.”

Whether or not that last bit is true is debatable, but what is certain is that Noble Prince has the profile of a horse that could become a festival fixture in the coming years. Following that slow start, he became a model of consistency during his hurdling career, and only finished out of the frame once in his next eight races, and that was when he was fifth in the County Hurdle, giving a stone to Thousand Stars. He has been even more consistent over the taller obstacles.

Never out of the first two in the races he’s completed, true stardom arrived when he handed that four-length trouncing to Wishful Thinking in the Jewson last year, and Nolan is satisfied that, today, he delivers a healthy horse to the right race, over the right distance, on the right ground, at the right time of year.

He had considered entering him in the Champion Chase, but not for too long, as he says. “Noble Prince had a minor wind operation, but he seems fine and I am happy with him. His performances are not that far off the best two-milers, but two miles and five furlongs around Cheltenham is right up his street. It’s the most competitive race of the festival week, in many ways. Alberta’s Run, Rubi Light, Riverside Theatre, all have great chances, and Sommersby is a very consistent horse who was only a short head behind Master Minded at his best, so on a straight line from that form he will be hard to beat too.”

Like most good Wexford hurlers, Paul Nolan stands strong in the heat of battle and he has very little use for sentimentality when he is discussing horses. His season took a couple of wrong turns earlier this spring, when Joncol went wrong and he lost the decent Alpha Ridge on the gallops, but there is never even a hint of ‘poor me’ or self pity in his words.

Even so, you’d wonder if he is really as tough as he sounds. The real reason he cut poor Frankie’s rations is that he is worried that excess weight might harm his growing bones. And the tough little three-legged Jack Russell hopping after him, as he disappears around another corner, lost her limb when she stupidly wandered under a nervous horse when a pup.

She was saved on the watch of the no-nonsense, let’s-get-on-with-it, unsentimental Paul Nolan.

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